It’s been nearly twenty years since Edward Norton made his directorial debut with Keeping the Faith, the only film the Oscar-nominated actor has directed. But he’s back now in a movie that is vastly bigger and far more complex compared to his love-triangle debut. Motherless Brooklyn is an old-school gangster noir featuring an excellent ensemble cast and beautiful set designs, yet is bogged down by its overlong runtime and the unnecessary Tourette’s.
Based on the novel by Jonathon Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn looks at Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton), a lonely private detective afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome in 1950’s Brooklyn. When his mentor, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), is murdered, Lionel sets out to find the people who did it where he ends up getting mixed up into something bigger than he anticipated.
As Lionel begins to dig into Frank’s past, he realizes whatever got him killed had something to do with the destruction of a housing project, which allows him to meet Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), one of the key players in the project not getting destroyed. This take Lionel even further down this corrupt hole and his obsessed mind won’t let him lose sight of his mission of finding Frank’s killer. Lionel also begins to grow feelings for Laura, which may cause him more harm than good.
Norton gathers all of his friends for this one to create one of the more impressive ensembles of 2019. Actors like Leslie Mann, Willem Dafoe, Bobby Canavale, and Michael Kenneth Williams, among others, all have brief moments in the film, but they make sure they show up for Norton to give strong performances. Willis sounds like he is getting his lines read to him through an earpiece and luckily, his performance is very short. Alec Baldwin also stars in the film as the corrupt city official who is overseeing the destruction of the housing project. Baldwin does some solid work, combining menace and politician smarminess. This is a performance that Baldwin could have gone over-the-top with, but he keeps it restrained and compelling. Gugu Mbatha-Raw might be the overall MVP of the film. There is an effortlessness to her performance that makes her compelling to watch. Mbatha-Raw is a true talent and it’s great to see her get roles like this.
Norton is also very good in easily his best performance since 2014’s Birdman. However, Lionel having Tourette’s did not work for me during the film. Though Norton does a good job with it by not making it offensive or absurd, it never felt like there was a point of him having it other than just for Norton to do more acting. The Tourette’s does make Lionel’s mind mix things up from time to time, but that could have been portrayed without the actual Tourette’s. It is also used to make Lionel seem annoying or weird, as even his closest friends call him “Freakshow”. Again, this could have been portrayed without the actual Tourette’s. I almost wish Lionel was more like Norton’s character Worm from Rounders, where you always felt like he had something brewing up his sleeve rather than use Tourette’s to make him a social pariah of sorts. I’m sure this aspect of the film was handled better in the novel, but it didn’t work for me here.
Norton directed a film that feels like it was ripped right out of the era it is set in. This isn’t a crime film filled with violence and gangsters. This is a crime film about corruption and power and the secrets of those closest to you. Norton really puts us in 1950’s New York with gorgeous set design and costumes along with strong, era-appropriate dialog. This really felt like 50’s noir. There’s voiceover, a flaw main character, tons of twists and turns, and deeper meanings than what is on the screen. The issue, though, is the nearly two-and-a-half-hour run time, which takes away a lot of the power of the big reveals and makes the film feel like it just keeps going. There are a number of scenes that could have been cut or trimmed a bit, and the Tourette’s added about fifteen minutes all to itself. This is a film that could have been cut a bit in order to make the film tighter.
This is an impressive directorial effort from Norton. The film looks gorgeous and he’s made an old school noir that we haven’t seen in a long time. And even with the unnecessary Tourette’s and the long runtime, this is still a solid movie and one that has me excited for the future of Norton as a director.
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