My biggest takeaway from Motherless Brooklyn is that Edward Norton really, really cares about it. This isn’t Norton’s first time behind the camera (he also directed 2000’s Keeping the Faith), but it’s been a passion project of sort for Norton for the past ten years, and he goes all in directing, writing, and starring with an unusual and potentially divisive character choice. The components of the film- passion project, actor turned director, genre mashup, and New York tribute- risk being one of unbearable pretension, but if all those things aline there can be gold, and that’s exactly what Motherless Brooklyn is. I’m not sure if I’ll be in the minority, but I found the film to be magical.
Indulgence in of itself is not a bad thing, and Norton’s dedication to building an entire history into 1950s New York comes across through the patience he has. Maybe there’s a few jazz numbers that run long and a few impassioned monologues that get a bit wordy, but they’re also there to make this long movie one that feels lived in. The two biggest themes of the film are the city of New York itself and the noir genre, and while Norton pokes holes in the shiny exterior of both, there’s also a genuine love. Norton deconstructs the secret history of New York’s sinister constructors without detracting from the beauty of its inhabitants, and similarly he presents a noir mystery in the style of Bogart and Huston that replicates every familiar element (especially voiceover), yet subverts it with a private eye that’s anything but slick.
Once an orphaned boy at a Catholic home, Lionel Essrog (Norton) is now a private investigator employed by the legendary detective Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Lionel worships Frank, and although Lionel’s Tourette syndrom makes it challenging for him to be a smooth operator, Frank represents all the hope and opportunity in New York- one that’s stripped away when he’s abruptly murdered. Lionel is heartbroken and determined to solve the murder of his friend, and begins by investigating a girl (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) that Frank was visiting before his demise.
The film starts off with a grand slam opening, a kinetic heist gone awry that serves as a great way to show the vastness of New York and set up the film’s inciting incident. From then on, however, it’s a much slower affair, and it’s immediatley clear that Norton sees this as an actor’s piece (he deliberatley casts New York stage actors in most of the principal roles). There’s a directness and assertiveness to each character that feels lifted from the stage; characters say how they feel in poetic detail and reference their own nuanced histories, and these beautiful words come alive due to Norton’s patient direction. Each location, be it a sensual jazz club or a stuffed apartment, seems to hold its secrets, and the dedication Norton has to his noir roots gives each set an old fashioned charm.
Lionel’s investigation is all built around clues, and the attention to detail the film takes to building its conspiracy is certainly one that demands attention at all time. The details are hiding in plain sight, and when Norton feels that he needs to go back to a specific moment to hone in on a detail it’s presented in an interesting way (Lionel’s modest recreation of a private eye voiceover is an entertaining framing device that feeds exposition in a natural way). Best of all, it’s an emotional affair; much of the film comes out of Lionel’s growing awareness of the vastness of the world around him, and seeing him come out of his shell and see the hidden triumph and tragedy is enough to make the mystery feel urgent.
Norton gives a performance that is brave; his depiction of someone with Tourette syndrom is insturmental to a character who doesn’t fit the normal detective mold and struggles to understand the interactions between others. His condition often puts him in harm’s way and isolates his emotions, and the uncertainty Norton approaches each scene is one of the most important aspects of this character. This is just a timeless character, one whose compelled to do good things out of empathy, and Lionel’s unparalleled ability to bite off more than he can chew is reminiscent of all the great hapless heroes.
This is a film all about power- who has it, who doesn’t, and what it means, and at its heart the themes of awareness turn every character into a flawed person who is victim to their own ambitions. Even Lionel’s attempts to solve Frank’s murder are about personal fufillment, and it’s interesting to see a mystery that’s equally focused on the conclusion and the motivation. The epitome of the powerful New York establishment is seen in Moses Randolph, a corrupt longstanding city urban planner whose played in a scene chewing performance by Alec Baldwin. Baldwin gives it his all, and the depths of which Randolph is convinced of his own achievment make him a fascinating antagonist for the confused Lionel.
This is also just a beautiful movie, with gorgeous scenery from cineamtographer Dick Pope and an enchanting score by Daniel Pemberton (whose quietly become one of the most interesting composers in Hollywood). It’s gorgeous nightime scenery is evocative of everything from Chinatown to City Lights, and the film’s elaborate means of getting between plot points never feels tiresome because of what a wonderful sensory feast it is. All the pent up aspirations and struggles of the story are summarized in “Daily Battles,” a song written by Thom Yorke for the soundtrack that finds the haunting, somber heart of the story and serves as a great insight into Lionel’s psyche.
Although the novel it was based upon is set in modern day, Motherless Brooklyn commits heavily to its 1950s period setting, which is a perfect choice to exemplify its noir elements, give a history to its subtext about inequality, and give the film a distant, and almost dreamlike quality. I don’t think it would have come across nearly as charming or meditative had it been set in modern day, and I also don’t think an audience conditioned to today’s rapidfire take culture could appriciate the upmost sincerity the film is going with. There’s so much to digest, but I in any moment I was happy to be living in the world that Edward Norton has imagined. Grade: A-