I can never resist long-gestating passion projects, and that description certainly applies to Motherless Brooklyn. Edward Norton has been interested in making a movie based on the Jonathan Lethem novel since its publication in 1999, and now that he finally has, he’s credited as the director, writer, producer, and lead actor to boot. With this much control over a film he’s had 20 years to conceptualize (and considering Norton’s reputation for demanding control over the films he’s cast in) one would expect that whatever else, Motherless Brooklyn would be a deeply personal and unique work of art.
Unfortunately, Norton’s noir opus is a mixed bag of big ideas and generic themes, stifled by an even more generic presentation. Norton has taken Lethem’s detective novel and made it even more sprawling—adding several more characters and changing the setting to historic 1950s New York—but his chosen method to convey this new sprawl is through long-winded voice over and characters endlessly expositing at each other in over-lit rooms. There are seeds of interesting storylines, and plenty of ambition for sure, but Motherless Brooklyn is way too overstuffed and flat for that ambition to really be felt.
Norton plays Lionel Essrog, the PI protagonist of the Lethem novel. Lionel has Tourette syndrome, a condition which has made him an outcast and complicates his ability to do his job as an investigator. But Lionel’s weaknesses are offset by his photographic memory and his relationship with Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), a veteran PI who has taken Lionel under his wing despite his disability. When Frank gets murdered during a seemingly routine sting operation, Lionel has to take it upon himself to figure out who wanted Frank dead and why. Lionel’s search thrusts him headfirst into a web of blackmail, redlining, political conspiracies, and urban development that could alter the future of New York City.
It’s my understanding that the film Motherless Brooklyn is only a nominal adaption of the Lethem novel (which I haven’t read.) Norton’s screenplay has sidestepped the novel’s contemporary ‘90s setting to pursue the bountiful production design opportunities of the 1950s. Many of the film’s main characters—including Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Laura Rose, Willem Dafoe’s Paul Randolph, and Alec Baldwin’s Moses Randolph—are not even in the novel. With his Motherless Brooklyn, Norton is using Lethem’s text as a jumping off point, partly to tell a story about institutional power during a pivotal transition in New York City history: the era of the Master Builder, Robert Moses. He’s also partly telling a story about the Harlem jazz scene. And another story about solidarity between the different axes of oppression.
Yet none of Motherless Brooklyn’s storylines ever cohere in a way that truly resonates. The performances are all sound—Bruce Willis manages to summon some livelihood for his five seconds of screen-time, and even Norton keeps his balance in a role that could’ve very easily capsized into indulgent self-parody—but the characters never get a chance to rise above their loglines. It doesn’t help that the 1950s setting feels less like a necessary divergence and more like a cinematic affection, akin to Chinatown by way of Bugsy Malone but completely unironically.
But Motherless Brooklyn’s biggest crimes are its length and its network TV-like uniformity. This is the type of movie where just from the opening shot, you know exactly how a scene is going to play out, yet there’s a seemingly endless number of scenes. And despite the film’s surfeit of characters and plotlines, not all of the film’s scenes are that necessary. Do you like the song Thom Yorke wrote for this movie? Well get ready to listen to it three times at near-full length, because that’s super important to understanding the themes and context behind Motherless Brooklyn.
It’s tough to say how much of Motherless Brooklyn could have been saved had there been another director to be tougher on the edit and more inventive with the staging and shot variety. In the end, I remain unconvinced by this film’s aims, which at the same time seem too slight and widely scattered to sustain a meaningful story. Maybe Norton would have served us better with a collection of one-act plays or short stories about the old New York he’s clearly fascinated by.