Review: Motherless Brooklyn

Edward Norton’s Oscar push. And it feels like it. Motherless Brooklyn has some things going for it: the lighting in scenes, the pace of dialogue, and the big bad wolf mystery all play well together. I even like Norton’s character, Lionel. I think he does a great job moving back and forth between between an investigator and a romantic, and whatever combination of Tourette’s, OCD, and whatever afflicted Rain Man he pulls off alright. It is a bit distracting at times, but for his character he makes it work. However, most things in this film feel like Eddie is trying too hard to make a great film, which in turn makes it not a great film. It’s an attempt, but it feels like only that. He built the ceiling too low on his passion project and then proceeded to cram in as much star power, character reveals, and neo-noir as he could in order to pass it off as award bait.
Based on a 20-year-old novel that Norton read 20 years ago, the adaptation to screen was written, produced, directed, and acted by Edward Norton (he deserves some props, that’s impressive to pull off in a decent movie). The time period is changed though from the 90’s to the 50’s, substituting a central focus of the “Minna Men” and their detective agency for a focus on bowler hats and trenchcoats. Lionel (Norton) is one of four Catholic school orphans rescued by Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) to come work for him and his detective agency. After many years together, and in the midst of a growing city, Frank finds himself in the middle of something big and is shot, leaving behind threads for Lionel to pull. Who or what is “formosa”? What does a jazz club have to do with it And why is the city planner involved? Where is the missing piece? As Lionel gets closer to an answer, he must work to not let what he’s told become truth, that “sometimes you do everything you are supposed to and it all still goes to s***.”
There is more to praise about this film, but also more to nitpick about. So I’m gonna do both. Alec Baldwin plays a very convincing power-crazed mogul, stepping on anyone who gets in his way. Moses Randolph is the name and forcing out lower-income families in order to build bigger and better things is his game. Heralded as the “hero of the public” for building a few parks, he simply does not tolerate weakness or care to hear excuses. Willem Dafoe also shows up around halfway through the story as a has-been engineer who was somehow ruined by Randolph and is maybe looking to get back at him or something? I won’t spoil things here because there are some plot twists in this one, but altogether I think how the characters related to one another could have been written stronger. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (voice acting for The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance & starring in the upcoming Apple TV+ The Morning Show) is also worth mentioning as both the romantic interest and point of interest for Lionel. She could have been given more screen time though because she was under-utilized in the story.
As for nitpicking, much of the beginning plot that was convoluted. Voice-overs by Edward Norton every 15 seconds didn’t help me pick up what was happening, they just got in the way. I liked the idea of the voice-over more in concept, enforcing the idea that Lionel is a brilliant person who has to live with a brain that causes inconvenient tics throughout his day-to-day life. Baldwin’s character seemed a little too over-the-top, even though that seems to be his acting style anyway. It was a little coincidental and cheesy that the first and really only woman to enter Lionel’s life since his mom was also able to calm his brain like his mom used to. And the incidental sleuthing jazz music between scenes along with the rest of the things Norton included just made for a type of facade. Like he really wants to win an award, but he doesn’t have any single award in mind so he just spread a thin net hoping to pick up a nomination for something. I guess it was just a feeling I had as I was watching the film, and maybe it was just me, but there were several of these things that when stirred together didn’t sit right.
So this is a recommended pass from me. If you like detective genre films then there is a story here that does have a lot of detecting, but it was a difficult film for me to enjoy (especially at nearly 2 1/2 hours in length) and I wouldn’t want to return to it anytime in the future, especially when there are better detective films too. In a season packed with noteworthy releases every year, this film isn’t worth spending the time. But I have some high hopes for other films coming out soon, including Harriet starring Cynthia Erivo and Leslie Odom Jr. which opened this weekend across the states. I can’t believe this is the first feature-length movie surrounding her harrowing and dangerous work of helping slaves find freedom, and the film looks fantastic. Come back to read more about that after I see it and also note that I still have a Netflix series review coming soon too. As always, thanks for sticking around and let me know what you thought of Motherless Brooklyn if you already saw it or choose to disregard my opinion and go see it anyway 🙂 Cheers!

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