Motherless Brooklyn Review
Actors who step behind the camera to try out directing are usually motivated by the idea of making “the kind of movies they don’t make any more”. From George Clooney’s attempts to emulate classic Hollywood throughout his filmography, to Ben Affleck trying to revive a type of filmmaking absent from multiplexes since the 70s, contemporary A-listers seem hellbent on using their star power to chase the romantic ideal of a film steeped in American cinema history. And almost always, these films instead leave audiences wishing they were watching the real thing instead.
For his first film as director since the mid 90s, Edward Norton is the latest Hollywood talent to have fallen victim to this trend. Motherless Brooklyn is a passion project he’s tried to get off the ground for 20 years, and his big chance to show off his bona fides as a lover of all things noir - hell, he even tinkered with the source material to make it a period piece, rather than the contemporary drama it was in novel form. But despite Norton’s clear reverence for the story, it all rings hollow, and too narratively familiar for the intrigue of the plot to ever become engrossing. If you love the noir genre as much as Norton does, you’ll be better off watching one of the classics instead, as you’ll spend every second in the company of Motherless Brooklyn wondering why you didn’t just stay at home and rewatch Chinatown.
Based on Jonathan Lethem’s novel, the film is centred on Lionel Essrog (Norton), a Tourettes afflicted detective with a photographic memory. One day, while on a job shadowing his boss Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who falls out of sight and shot down over some documents that threaten a business deal elsewhere in the city. Assuming the guise of a New York Times reporter, Lionel starts digging deeper to find out the motivation for Minna’s killing, meeting Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) an activist fighting gentrification in the city who was named in the documents. After meeting her, Lionel burrows deeper and into a web that seems to link everybody back to a racist property developer (Alec Baldwin).
It would be unfair to refer to Motherless Brooklyn as a vanity project, but Norton’s lead performance is showboating in a way that repeatedly detracts from the supposed grittiness of this hard boiled tale. Playing up the character’s nervous tics is one thing, but frequently using his Tourette's outbursts as a source of comedy is a far clumsier decision - although, if Norton was aiming to make the type of movie they don’t make anymore, why not indulge in an outdated and infantile stereotype? It’s a showboating turn that enables him to make random outbursts at ill fitting moments, all of which feel written to form part of an Oscar reel than any meaningful depiction of living with this condition. Admittedly, it’s not designed to poke fun at living with Tourette’s, and in some ways, it’s refreshing to see a film where the main character has a medical condition that doesn’t solely factor as a plot point. But it feels empty, and quite considerably misjudged regardless.
As pronounced as the period setting is, Norton does everything he can to make sure the audience doesn’t forget that this is very much a tale about societal injustices that remain commonplace in American society to this day. Hell, the seedy property developer who plans to tear down historically black neighbourhoods is played by the same actor now most famous for parodying the current occupant of the whole house. It couldn’t be any less subtle about the shameful parallels with the present - and yet it’s still difficult to invest in the story as this allegory is baked into a watered down noir tale told countless times before.
There are some nice directorial flourishes; a trip to a jazz concert unexpectedly segues into a dance sequence that is thrilling precisely because it makes a change from the monotony of the plot. But mostly, Norton is a workmanlike talent - competent behind the camera, and with a sincere love for the material no matter how well worn or clichéd but never offering anything particularly unique or memorable in his vision.
Motherless Brooklyn is released in UK cinemas on December 6th