I like film noir and I tend to like the chances that Edward Norton takes in many of the roles he plays, so imagine my excitement hearing that he was returning to the director’s chair for the first time in nearly 20 years (since 2000’s Keeping the Faith) for the private detective story Motherless Brooklyn, based on the novel by Jonathan Lethern (which Norton adapted). Set in 1950s New York, the film follows Lionel Essrog (Norton), who works for a detective agency run by Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), one of the only guys to give him a break as a kid growing up in an orphanage. In fact, all five of the private dicks at the agency (rounded out by Bobby Cannavale, Dallas Roberts, and Ethan Suplee) were at the orphanage together, forming a kind of protective ring around each other, but especially around Lionel who has a series of uncontrollable ticks (Tourette Syndrome, although it’s never mentioned by name) that made him a target of bullying.
So when Frank is gunned down during a meeting with some shady characters that no one else in the agency seems to know anything about, Lionel takes it upon himself to figure out who killed him and why. Using his photographic memory and some pretty exceptional (perhaps obsessive) powers of deduction, Lionel works his way through the upper and lower echelons of New York City, which is in a bit of a transition at the time, moving from a collection of neighborhoods and residents of mixed economic standing to something a bit more exclusive.
Lionel’s investigation brings him into the circles of the uptown elite, represented by Alec Baldwin’s Moses Randolph, a man who gets things built no matter what might be in the way; as well as the Harlem anti-expansion establishment, run by Gabby Horowitz (Cherry Jones) and her right-hand woman Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who seems to be tied into the goings on much more than makes sense at first. Also on hand is Willem Dafoe as a seemingly insane engineer who has an impressive plan to rework the city’s electrics to make them more efficient and less likely to break down; for some reason, this threatens certain people in power.
The primary problem with Motherless Brooklyn is that it’s endless, and I’m not just referring to the running time which stretches into two and a half hours. And while I’m certainly not against longer films (we’ll have one next week that is almost the same length that I liked quite a bit), when you can feel time passing and spot places where time could be cut quite easily, it makes the whole experience pretty draining. Norton’s quirky performance is actually fairly endearing, even if he spends the majority of the film apologizing to everyone he comes into contact with. But he’s able to cleverly hide his intelligence behind his condition, and it makes people less nervous around him and more simply amused.
I liked the tour of this period in New York history that the film provides, and the production design is solid. But when you go to a jazz club in Harlem, we don’t need to hear two or three entire tunes to get the idea we’re in a jazz club. And I was slightly baffled as to the appearance, welcome as it was, of the great Michael Kenneth Williams as a character referred to only as “Trumpet Man” in the cast list. I’m fairly certain he’s supposed to be Miles Davis, based on his voice and playing style, and his reaction to Lionel’s ticks is unexpected.
The tentative love story between Lionel and Laura is sweet, but again, is dragged out so long, it becomes unnecessarily grueling to get through to what feels like an inevitable conclusion. Dafoe’s somewhat mysterious character, Paul, has his story arc that pays off with a bit more satisfaction, but he’s still trapped in this seemingly endless, pretzel-like plot. I was rooting for this one to bring it all together, but what we’re left with is a collection of mostly interesting characters trapped in a fairly predictable plot. Norton works so infrequently these days, it would be a shame to miss him in anything, so I’m giving Motherless Brooklyn the mildest of recommendations based on that alone.
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