Actor Edward Norton had only directed one film, Keeping the Faith (2000), nearly two decades ago. The film flew under the radar for the most part, but it is Norton’s second film that brings about a more ambitious vision: with the adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s “Motherless Brooklyn.”
Motherless Brooklyn (2019) is set in 1950s New York and is a by-the-numbers mystery-noir. Our narrator and main character is Lionel (Edward Norton); private-eye Frank’s (Bruce Willis) assistant who has Tourette’s syndrome, but also an impeccable memory. Soon Frank is under attack for an investigation of his, and Lionel must take the mystery into his own hands, and slowly he begins to see the magnitude of the case.
The film arranges an impressive cast, (Willem Dafoe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Leslie Mann, etc.) who all reportedly worked for free on account of their friendship with Norton. However, Norton’s direction (and script which he also wrote) isn’t able to make the most of such talented performers. The result is a film that sticks close to clichés and its generic mold, and yet is incapable of committing to its non-arthouse existence. Motherless Brooklyn feels like a tug of war between its actuality as a pop-corn film, and the intentions of making a more “elevated film” by Norton.
The misuse of the cast is in the restrictions that Norton seems to impose on them, barring a certain self-awareness, and having all the characters be played too seriously. But the actors also suffer from a fairly messy structure and editing, which has the plot wander aimlessly and drifting to inconclusive story threads that make one forget about significant characters, let alone the actual main story. Given that the film is nearly two-and-a-half hours long, much of this “fat” could have been easily trimmed, to provide a needed rhythm and clarity.
The cast is talented enough to show brief glimpses of quality, so that you are distracted from the predictable story arcs and upcoming twists. There is a nice aesthetic set to 1950s New York, which is helped by the production design, costumes, and cinematography; however, even these seemed to be longing to tell a more self-aware film, or even satire, than the indecisive bore that was delivered instead.
Motherless Brooklyn is not a terrible film, it simply is dull; and given that it deals with an exciting mystery genre, it contrasts even worse for the film. Norton brings about a good performance in the lead role, and yet his directing and script falter in their emotional awareness of their characters as much as the clarity of the story.