'Motherless Brooklyn': Film Review | Telluride 2019

An ambitious muddle.
11/1/2019

Edward Norton's adaptation of the Jonathan Lethem novel about a New York detective with Tourette syndrome stars Norton himself, alongside Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin and Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

Appealingly reframed from its source novel’s 1990s setting into a 1957-set film noir and brimming with fine actors, Edward Norton’s long-aborning adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s much-lauded 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn is stylishly made, politically driven, musically arresting, narratively confusing and, at nearly two-and-a-half hours, far too long.  

What, as reconceived by Norton, could have been a smart and tart slap at the New York authorities who allowed the city to transform in some unfortunate and unfair ways in the 1950s has instead been inflated into an overdone epic of sociopolitical venality with clear designs on being viewed as an East Coast Chinatown. Debuting in Telluride and set to close the New York Film Festival, the film will no doubt be embraced by at least a portion of the intelligentsia but will likely try the patience of a general viewership.

What’s striking and original right off the bat in the tense opening scene is the status of Norton’s two-bit private dick as a man with Tourette syndrome, which makes him periodically snap his head to the side and make odd noises or issue forth with a torrent of often incomprehensible exclamations. This alone makes the manic Lionel Essrog a unique screen character, all the more so as a leading man instead of a supporting oddball type.

Even in the protracted opening scene, however, it’s hard to know what’s really going down. In a New York that’s part Sweet Smell of Success (the frequent jazz club settings) and part Edward Hopper (a lot of the color and framing), private detective Frank Minna (Bruce Willis in winning form) is shot down by some bad boys for unclear reasons, leaving it to his surviving colleagues, notably including Lionel, the more boisterous Tony Vermonte (Bobby Cannavale), Gil (Ethan Suplee) and Danny (Dallas Roberts), to follow up.

Lionel isn’t too good at connecting with people and the initial plot thread is soon put to the side to allow other, bigger sociopolitical matters and relationships to move into the foreground. In very short order, the pic is spending a lot of time at a Harlem jazz club, The King Rooster, which is home away from home for Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a community-minded lawyer. The music is great there, thanks particularly to a trumpeter played by Michael Kenneth Williams (with music actually played by Wynton Marsalis), and you can’t begrudge Norton for spending as much time at this sidebar setting as he does.

But the actual storyline becomes obscured early on to the point that it begins being hard to tell what the point of many of the scenes might be, and what the generally ineffectual Lionel intends to do about it. As Laura Rose, who’s fearful of vague forces that she thinks are after her, and political activist Gabby Horowitz (a forthright Cherry Jones) stride closer to center stage, it becomes clear that Norton’s interest lies in turning the spotlight on the vile campaign of New York’s city planning overlord Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) — a scarcely disguised version of Robert Moses — to eradicate the slums (as well as places such as the architectural treasure Penn Station) and reset the city’s priorities to favor the elites. Some viewers will no doubt be pleased to view this as a prefiguring of Donald Trump.

Any number of scenes are inscrutable in terms of dramatic need or even what’s actually going on, especially in regard to Lionel’s interactions with Laura Rose. Norton has repositioned his screenplay from the book’s intent in many ways, but quite a few of the characters seem marginal or even unnecessary, beginning with Lionel’s colleagues, as they don’t much play an integral part in things. And while there are several brutal interludes, what really lies behind them often remains unclear or, frankly, unnecessary, leaving one too often to puzzle over events and wonder why what we’re watching is actually happening.

Ultimately, frustration and fatigue prevail over the film’s intellectual acuity and political insight; neither is any true emotion ever forthcoming. This is odd and disappointing, in that so many first-rate talents came on board for this, beginning with the stellar cast, and also given the splendid work of resourceful production designer Beth Mickle, cinematographer Dick Pope, costume designer Amy Roth and composer Daniel Pemberton.

Production companies: Class 5 Films, MWM Studios
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis, Cherry Jones, Bobby Canavale, Dallas Roberts, Josh Pais, Radu Spingel, Fisher Stevens, Peter Lewis, Robert Ray Wisdom, Michael Kenneth Williams
Director-screenwriter: Edward Norton, based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem
Producers: Bill Migliore, Edward Norton, Michael Bederman, Gigi Pritzker, Rachel Shane
Executive producers: Adrian Alperovich, Sue Kroll, Daniel Nadler, Robert F. Smith, Brian Niranjan Sheth
Director of photography: Dick Pope
Production designer: Beth Mickle
Costume designer: Amy Roth
Editor: Beth Mickle
Music: Daniel Pemberton
Visual effects supervisor: Mark Russell
Casting: Amy Kaufman
Venue: Telluride Film Festival

144 minutes