Motherless Brooklyn review: Hard to see the truth through the stylistic haze

Edward Norton’s adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s sprawling detective novel feels bloated and ungainly

Clarisse Loughrey
Thursday 05 December 2019 10:45
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Motherless Brooklyn - Trailer

Dir: Edward Norton. Cast: Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe. 15 cert, 144 mins.

Twenty years is a long time to sit with an idea. Edward Norton first tried to adapt Jonathan Lethem’s sprawling detective novel when it was published back in 1999. He was a star at his apex then, with two Oscar nominations under his belt. But the project kept falling through. As the years went by, he began to shrink away from Hollywood, returning only at the behest of choice auteurs. Motherless Brooklyn became Norton’s great passion project, doomed to likely never see the light of day. Until now.

Long-delayed endeavours always meet one of two fates: time has either matured its ideas, or left them bloated and ungainly. Motherless Brooklyn, sadly, is marked by the latter. With Lethem’s permission, Norton has transformed the author’s contemporary story into a historical one, set during the gentrification of Harlem in the 1950s. As a lament to a vision of New York City that has slipped out of sight, lost to capitalist interests and systemic racism, Motherless Brooklyn is tender and unfeigned. But its homage to film noir is over-the-top and borderline parodic – at times, it’s more Who Framed Roger Rabbit? than Chinatown.

When private detective Lionel Essrog (Norton) witnesses the death of his boss and father-figure Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), he dedicates himself to finding out who ordered the hit and why. Lionel has Tourette syndrome, which causes verbal outbursts and muscle twitches. He’ll tug compulsively at a loose thread on his sweater, even after his co-worker (Ethan Suplee) warns him: “Quit pulling at it, you’ll make a mess out of it.” In case you hadn’t noticed, his words are symbolic.

The script finds convenient ways for Lionel’s disorder to serve the narrative, yet also grasps the kind of daily frustrations that it can bring. Inevitably, with each interaction with a stranger, Lionel has to explain his behaviour. And while there’s a sense of technical perfectionism to the way Norton contorts his body to imitate Lionel’s tics, he doesn’t treat the character as an acting exercise – there’s as much emphasis on his role as the film’s romantic, idealistic hero.

Swaddled in a newsboy cap and pea coat, Lionel certainly looks at home in the coolly lit cityscapes of cinematographer Dick Pope. Daniel Pemberton’s score, too, is lush and authentic (with a surprise contribution from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke).

But while Motherless Brooklyn may look and sound convincing, its characters too easily slip too into stiff and unconvincing archetypes. A community activist (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) ends up the damsel-in-distress. Moses Randolph, Norton’s nod to real-life public official and notorious bigot Robert Moses, is far too on the nose when played by Alec Baldwin. With a peacock’s ego and a tendency to use phrases like, “The doers who make this country great”, he’s just another variation of the actor’s now-famous Trump impersonation. There might have been an opportunity to tether Motherless Brooklyn’s themes to today’s concerns, but it’s hard to see the truth through all the stylistic haze.

‘Motherless Brooklyn’ is released in UK cinemas on 6 December

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