Edward Norton’s new film “Motherless Brooklyn” is an adaptation of the Jonathan Lethem novel about a New York detective with Tourette syndrome. Norton, who also directs, stars alongside Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin and Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
As far as the screenplay goes, I would not be surprised if the adaption gets an Oscar nomination (Best Adapted Screenplay) for Norton. He’s re-imagined the novel’s 1990s setting into a 1957-set with a film noir feel. Now to the actual film which stands at two-and-a-half hours, it looks stylish and it’s filled with beautiful music, jazz, but it’s very, very, very hard to follow.
It opens with Norton’s character, Lionel Essrog, a small-time private detective with Tourette syndrome, a unique hero, witnessing the murder of his boss, private detective Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) leaving his confused colleagues, Lionel, the aloof Tony Vermonte (Bobby Cannavale), Danny (Dallas Roberts) and Gil (Ethan Suplee) to figure out who murdered him.
There is a lot of cramming of a message with a very thin plot.
Lionel’s condition makes it hard to connect with people but to find out who murdered his boss, he tries following clues that lead him to a Harlem-based jazz club, The King Rooster, where he connects with Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a beautiful and committed lawyer who lives, in Harlem, above a jazz club. There, the music is provided by a brilliant trumpeter, played by Michael Kenneth Williams, with the music is played by Wynton Marsalis, which is simply window dressing, which is a shame because it’s like the music (and the club) was added for no real purpose.
Laura Rose is fighting racial discrimination with political activist, Gabby Horowitz (Cherry Jones) to stop the progress of New York’s city planning boss Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) —whose goal is to create unlivable conditions throughout New York, turning good neighborhoods into slums, evicting the tenants and then reclaiming the property. Rose is fighting this injustice and is terrified that she’s being followed. As expressed by Norton it’s clear that New York authorities and the U.S. government hate Black, Brown and poor people.
The longer the story stays in Harlem the fuzzier the storyline becomes. There is so much “fat” in the movie with many characters coming in and out that doesn’t seem to serve the story. To wit beginning with Lionel’s colleagues, as they don’t add anything vital to the story serving more as atmospheric set dressing.
What’s happening? We don’t know. It’s a mystery so it’s fair we stay in the dark but in truth, we as an audience deserve better from the mystery. The good news is that Norton’s film is filled with gifted actors and gifted craftsperson like cinematographer Dick Pope, costume designer Amy Roth but all in all — it evokes its title “motherless.”
Reviewed at New York Film Festival. 144 minutes.
“Motherless Brooklyn” produced by Class 5 Films, MWM Edward Norton, based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem. Distributed by Warner Bros. Directed by Edward Norton. Screenplay by Ed-ward Norton. Starring Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis, Cherry Jones, Bobby Cannavale, Dallas Roberts, Josh Pais, Radu Spiegel, Fisher Stevens, Peter Lewis, Robert Ray Wisdom, Michael Kenneth Williams.