The closing night film at New York Film Festival, “Motherless Brooklyn” is an exercise in self-indulgence from Edward Norton, a hodge-podge of ideas without any real cohesion.
The history of Motherless Brooklyn from the page to the screen is difficult to understand. Written and set in 1999, the Jonathan Lethem novel involves a Tourette’s-afflicted detective named Lionel Essrog. Lionel deals with the death of Frank Minna, the lead investigator at the agency where he worked. The novel operates as light satire, taking on tropes of the 1950s and hard-boiled detective fiction in a direction that points to why these stories don’t exist anymore. But in adapting Motherless Brooklyn in 2019, Edward Norton decides to completely change when and where and how the events of the novel play out. Lionel is still a detective with Tourette’s Syndrome, and Frank still dies. But now it is against the backdrop of the 1950s for real, losing the out-of-time aspect of the book’s characters and instead places it into an entirely new reality.
This is where Edward Norton creates his story and rebuilds it entirely. He adds in real history from the 1950s, and real racial politics. He creates new dynamics and a new sound to the dialogue and story. And it is all upsettingly hollow. In a disappointing way, you can only blame Edward Norton. He is the writer and director and star and producer, and every decision comes through him. So when Leslie Mann shows up to play a shrill wife in two scenes and never appears again, it’s on Norton. When Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays a civil rights activist where her origin is based entirely on a twist? Norton. And when a trumpet player (Michael K. Williams as the actor, Wynton Marsalis doing the off-screen playing) tells Lionel that his character’s Tourette’s is basically like jazz, it is entirely on Norton.
So much of the film’s heart is in the right place. Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn is about Lionel investigating the death of Frank at the hand of some government goons. He traces it to a plot involving a land dealer in 1950s New York City. Lionel learns that he is forcing minorities out of their homes, and quickly realizes how that impacts the world around him. Played by Alec Baldwin, Moses Randolph is a caricature of a real man who had read consequences on the city. Baldwin is just one loud and brash actor who features in the film, alongside very strange and loud performances from Bruce Willis, Bobby Cannavale, and (in the movie’s best casting) Willem Dafoe. With so much fictionalizing, it isn’t even presenting reality in a proper way. Willis, Baldwin, and Norton, in particular, all feel like they are closer to MadTV performances than actual characters. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is an underutilized actress in general, but here it feels almost unfair. She is a pawn in a game of white men, the lone woman of color in the cast of a movie that is about land seizing of non-white neighborhoods in Manhattan.
Many of the off-screen aspects of Motherless Brooklyn are failures in different ways. Edward Norton has created a murderer’s row of Oscar-nominated cinematographer Dick Pope (Mr. Turner, The Illusionist), Oscar-nominated editor Joe Klotz (Precious, Rabbit Hole), production designer Beth Mickle (Drive), and costume designer Amy Roth (Indignation). All amazing talents, and all doing seemingly lazy work. The best aspect of the film is the music, with composer Daniel Pemberton absolutely nailing the 1950s musical tone. He works with an original song from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and has the talents of Marsalis behind him. But it also is utilized terribly, almost forced where it isn’t needed.
These are the odd problems of Motherless Brooklyn, a puzzle with all of the pieces in the right order but with every mistake made. Norton’s second directorial effort might best be his last.
Motherless Brooklyn was the Closing Night film at the New York Film Festival. It opens in theaters on November 1st