Review by Sean Boelman
A long-brewing passion project from writer-director-star Edward Norton (Fight Club), Motherless Brooklyn is a new crime drama paying homage to detective noir films. Yet despite the obvious passion from all involved, this ends up being an ill-informed and overly flashy exercise in self-indulgence.
The movie tells the story of a private investigator suffering from Tourette’s syndrome in 1950’s New York as he investigates a scheme that involves municipal corruption and the murder of his mentor. With a set-up so similar to the genre to which it clearly owes so much, the film is disappointingly inept at providing any real surprises, much less thrills.
One of the most easily identifiable symptoms of the movie’s excess is the bloated runtime, which clocks in at nearly two and a half hours for no good reason. After presenting the audience with a hook that is admittedly pretty compelling, the narrative grinds to a screeching halt thanks to a generic and predictable mystery and subplots that frequently go nowhere, or worse yet, are dead on arrival.
Additionally, Norton can’t seem to decide what he wants the tone of the film to be. Though it seems like the movie would have been best fit as a moody thriller akin to the greats of the genre that Norton so obviously loves, the momentum of the film is constantly being ruined by jokes, often made at the expense of the protagonist and his condition, that dispel any emotional connection that the audience may feel with the characters and their situation.
The script’s character development is also extremely disappointing. The protagonist is the only character with a legitimate arc, leaving all of the supporting characters as shallow archetypes with very few things to make them remotely interesting. However, Norton’s script attempts to do explore too many aspects of the protagonist, preventing the movie from being truly effective at any one of them.
Norton’s lead performance, while not always in the best taste, is infused with such an evident and infectious love for the source material that he manages to make the film watchable. Norton has also assembled an impressive supporting cast, including Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, and Willem Dafoe, all of whom dive into their roles. Willis, in particular, gives one of his best performances in years despite the lack of depth in the material he was given.
On a technical level, the movie is also lackluster. The production design does do a good job of recreating the feel of a 1950's New York, but the rest of the aesthetic ruins the work done by the costuming and sets. The film’s aggressively digital look counters the old-school vibe for which Norton was aiming, and the soundtrack also regularly feels anachronistic without purpose.
Even though it is saddening to say this about a movie made with so much passion, Motherless Brooklyn is a near total misfire. If not for a superb cast delivering very good to great performances across the board, this film would have been downright embarrassing.
Motherless Brooklyn is now playing in theaters.