MOVIE: MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN
STARRING: EDWARD NORTON; GUGU MBATHA-RAW; WILLEM DAFOE; ALEC BALDWIN
DIRECTED BY: EDWARD NORTON
AMovieGuy.com's RATING: 2 STARS (Out of 4)
Motherless Brooklyn has been a passion project for Edward Norton for over ten years. The rights for Jonathan Lethem's novel were purchased by the Fight Club star, went through a gauntlet of script re-writes, and finally makes it into theaters this fall. It's sad to say that it's not a good movie. Not terrible by any stretch of the way, with cinematography by Oscar nominee Dick Pope, and a cast of great actors that would elevate almost anything. It's just that Motherless Brooklyn is constantly lacking a push, an inspirational moment to drive it above mediocre. This is an old-style noir, without the black & white, about an eccentric private investigator, taking out the big guys to help the little guy. The effort is there, but Motherless Brooklyn is the cinematic equivalent of a sad, lost puppy.
Norton directs and stars as Lionel Essrog, telling us multiple times, both in voice over and in conversation, “he has a problem with his head”. By today's standards you would call it Tourette's syndrome, uncontrollable ticks and twitches, but Lionel is also a bit of a savant, with an uncanny ability to remember every little thing he hears. Full conversations, long lists, what he observes from a car. Lionel might be odd to some, but he has a talent. He works with four other private dicks that he's known since they were kids, leader Frank Minnna (Bruce Willis), Tony (Bobby Cannavale), Gilbert (Ethan Suplee), and Danny (Dallas Roberts). During one job, Frank finds himself mixed in with the wrong guys and ends up getting killed. Lionel is a witness to it all and this sends him on a path to find out what his good friend had got himself into. Our hero starts looking for clues, following a woman named Laura (the beautiful Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and catching himself in a web of political corruption involving city developer Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin). The further he goes, the deeper Lionel is in it.
Any of the issues I had with Motherless Brooklyn was not for a lack of trying. Although the character for Edward Norton feels more like a gimmick than genuine, the actor is consistent with playing Lionel's mannerisms from start to finish. Not to mention there are strong supporting moments from Willem Dafoe- as a local that seems to know a lot of information, and Mbatha-Raw who steals every scene she is in. I even appreciated the costumes and set design, both help creating that old New York authenticity, making my disliking of Motherless Brooklyn even more sad. The script from Norton has the pace of a conversation with Eeyore, and although everything looks official, Motherless Brooklyn is oddly lacking in color. In a noir film you need that smoke, the neon lights, or even the decision to shoot it in black & white. Nothing about Motherless Brooklyn radiates cool. It's shockingly bland.
All of those reasons, and more, make Motherless Brooklyn one of the biggest disappointments of the year. The passion is there from Norton, someone who wanted to bring a novel to life, but the drama is forgotten. It's not exciting to see a movie about corrupt housing developments in New York, being investigated by a character that is better equipped for movies in the 1980's. Motherless Brooklyn might be the kind of movie you recommend to your grandparents. It's safe and might intrigue them enough, but don't blame me if they fall asleep halfway through. I'm glad Edward Norton made his passion project. Now can we please put those talents into something else? Motherless Brooklyn just ain't getting the job done.
Written by: Leo Brady