At The Movies” Motherless Brooklyn
By Noah Gittell
“Film is a visual medium.” If you have spent any time with annoying cinephiles, you’ve heard cinema described this way, but what does it actually mean? “Motherless Brooklyn,” a soggy neo-noir written, starring, and directed by Edward Norton, provides a textbook explanation. Adapted from a detected novel by Jonathan Lethem, the film is overflowing with style that jumps off the screen but is missing the hard work of turning the written word into visual art.
Norton, in his first leading role since 2010, plays Lionel Essrog, a junior private detective uniquely ill-suited to his job. He suffers from Tourette’s syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder, although in the 1950s, they hadn’t yet been identified, so people just think Lionel is an insensitive jerk who likes to blurt out inappropriate things during serious conversations. This is probably why he’s on the lower rung at the agency run by his mentor and father figure Frank Menna (Bruce Willis). No one would give sensitive information to this guy.
Circumstances conspire to put him in the middle of a dangerous case involving the construction of a new housing development in his home borough of Brooklyn. Tyrannical city official Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) is doing battle with an activist group, led by the passionate Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), with the gentrification of Brooklyn hanging in the balance. Someone is murdered over information that would damage Randolph’s reputation. Lionel has to find out the details before someone else gets killed, and a borough gets gutted.
The book was set in 1989, but Norton moves the actions to four decades earlier. His stated purpose is to make the stylized gumshoe dialogue sound more believable, but it also allows him to go looking for the seeds of our present-day corruption. You can see it in Randolph, whose thirst for post-war power is so unquenchable he barely registers as human. Viewers on the left will see a clear analogue to our current president (that Baldwin is famous for playing Trump surely aids the comparison), but Randolph is non-partisan to a fault. The depiction of evil is so simplistic that it fails to generate any drama. Randolph is supposed to be terrifying, but there is so little humanity there that he barely registers as a threat.
Still, it’s the problems with Norton’s character that really sink the film. One of the central achievements of Lethem’s book was the way he brought readers inside the mind of his disabled protagonist. Although Norton manifests the tics and verbal explosions with seeming authenticity, he leans on the disability too heavily, failing to do the hard work of characterization. Lionel explains his condition to everyone he meets, so by the time the film ends, you will have heard it a dozen times or so. But you’ll be hard-pressed to describe any other aspect of his personality.
It’s a problem that afflicts too many literary adaptations: The screenwriter takes the best dialogue wholesale from the book, but screenwriting is a different beast. The speeches in “Motherless Brooklyn” are all several lines too long. Each character is given the space to explain his motivations thoroughly, when a glance or a raised eyebrow would have accomplished the same. Is this the actor in Norton being overly generous to his peers? These flaws really add up: “Motherless Brooklyn” is a bloated 144 minutes, and it feels just as long. Despite a few well-staged action scenes – an early car chase is the highlight – there are long stretches in which the plot is moving forward but your engagement never budges.
Even the thing for which the film will surely be praised – its cinematography and set design – comes with an asterisk. “Motherless Brooklyn” ably captures the cold, gray New York we know from so many potboilers, but with a few pops of bright color. It’s classic noir with a fun, modern twist, but visual storytelling is about more than style. Throughout the film, Norton passes on opportunities to use imagery to convey his themes or character. New York provides so many options for symbolism, but Norton instead relies on his words – so many words – and you’ll end up wishing you had just read the book instead.
It’s an unfortunate result, but a moment should be taken to celebrate the effort. We need more movies like this. The star-driven studio film with a social conscience was common in the 1970s. It became an endangered species in the ‘80s; now it’s virtually extinct. So even when “Motherless Brooklyn” is failing, you’ll find yourself wishing hard for it to succeed, waiting for the right image or moment to catapult it out of mediocrity. It’s a moment that sadly never comes.
My Rating: Skip it Altogether