‘Motherless Brooklyn’ Review: Why Edward Norton Can’t Do Neo-noir

It’s a sunny day in 1950s Brooklyn and Frank Minna is about to be killed at the hands of a group of nameless thugs. His friend and mentee, Lionel, listens intently from a nearby phone booth, memorizing every single detail of the encounter. Lionel sensed trouble as Frank is shoved into the thugs’ car and so begins a chase that we can gather does not end well. It’s sorrowful and exciting and… all goes downhill from there. 

Now, I had great faith in Edward Norton’s ability to direct a 1950s noir-esque film, considering the great source material (Jonathan Lethem’s novel of the same name) and the star-studded cast, namely Bruce Willis, Willem Dafoe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, and Norton himself as the protagonist. It appears, however, that this faith was misplaced. Motherless Brooklyn struggles to find its footing amidst its extensive runtime; and just when the film seems to land gracefully, it stumbles yet again.

Granted, it’s not absurdly long, especially given this year’s resurgence of the three hour flick (Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, Andrés Muschietti’s IT: Chapter 2, The Russo Brothers’ Avengers: Endgame). But Motherless Brooklyn feels a lot longer than 144 minutes. It replaces time that could be well spent deepening its central themes with drawn-out sequences featuring Edward Norton’s tedious narration. 

As far as the performances go, the only ones that can actually be praised are those of Edward Norton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Every other performance is relatively short-lived and does not offer much to the film (yes, before you ask, that does include Willem Dafoe’s). Gugu Mbatha-Raw brought her A-game as usual and steals every scene she’s in. And while Norton’s direction was questionable throughout, he did deliver some fairly seamless acting. He did not overplay or satirize his character’s Tourette’s; while it does often act as a source of comedic relief, Lionel’s impediment remained merely a small component of his complex persona. 

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Some stories are just better suited for the written word and Motherless Brooklyn is a fitting example. It tackles heavy themes like urban gentrification and racial disparity that would translate more cohesively on paper. Frankly, it’s hard to take these issues seriously when the majority of viewers’ encounters with them are through Lionel’s attempt to solve a murder. These problems, that should stand at the very forefront of the film, at times feel more like white noise. Instead, Motherless Brooklyn spends a lot of time assuring its aesthetic qualities; the slang, the score, the costume design.

We are meant to feel the atmospheric buzz of a crime-ridden metropolis reminiscent to that of Chinatown or Taxi Driver. Instead, we are left with the most lethargic of noir-isms: the endless shots of rain hitting puddles and cigarette smoke, excessive bouts of slang, and bloody fight scenes. Motherless Brooklyn may present itself as a crime film, but is really a sluggish character study that amasses no real personal growth for its protagonist. 

Before it began, Edward Norton came out on stage to introduce the film. “The story you’re about to see,” he begins, “is the story of an underdog. In the era that we’re living in, I think contemplating how we want to treat each other, how we want to take care of each other, and what we want to tolerate in how power is amassed and assembled against us is important. I hope that in the story of an underdog learning to become a hero by caring for other people, we can find a little more of that in ourselves”. Motherless Brooklyn is about the relationships we foster with our communities; be that with the people we love or with the environments we know. This heartfelt message is translated well into the film and no matter how disjointed the direction, there is an overarching feeling of affection throughout.

I would not go so far as to call Motherless Brooklyn a horrible film. It’s merely a disorganized one, with too many unnecessary twists and turns. Simply put, it’s a slow burn that burns out before it can get good. For everything that it does well, there are two things that need some serious improvement. Despite its phenomenal ensemble cast, Motherless Brooklyn falls short of its source material and will inevitably become long forgotten. 

★★½

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