Motherless Brooklyn (2019)

Edward Norton directs himself, Alec Baldwin and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in this noir mystery where a Tourette’s suffering assistant to a PI has to solve his boss’ death.

One of my biggest personal disappointments of the year. The book was fantastic. Norton has owned the rights for 20 years. And in 1999 he felt like perfect casting for Lionel Essrog – the twitching solver getting to the bottom of an underworld he had been protected from. Finally, the film is made and it is ponderous, flat. The period move to the 1950s works visually but soaks the snappy text in a prestigious death march, robbing it of its confusing poetry. It should be more frazzled, haphazard, overwhelming if it wants to capture Jonathan Lethem’s prose. Motherless Brooklyn moves so serenely you can unscramble its riddles and ranting quirk a little too easily. It looks like it is set in the right world yet very few frames have any imagination. If acting is going on then Norton wants a close-up. Only the establishing shots have the whomp of true cinema. And Norton’s performance is solid but not the homerun he must have planned for. Is his age a factor? Would the naive Essrog work better in his early 20s? Probably. A more sensible adaptor might have eyed up Baldwin’s part for their vanity showcase. Five scenes all of which leave their mark. Less screen time, more meat. Baldwin is glorious as the Titan Of Industry, Moses Randolph… and it is a part created independently from the book! I don’t want to write off Motherless Brooklyn completely. It is well acted, ambitious and often pleasing to watch in the moment. An early car chase is discombobulating in its erratic flow – fitting to Essrog’s mindset. A later stand-off has the pleasing physicality of early Coen Brothers. The deadly slapstick escape recalls Blood Simple or Miller’s Crossing in the simple kineticisms. It is hardly essential though and feels compromised by weak, diluted storytelling choice. Someone should have told Norton to have some fun with it.


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