At a family gathering recently, a young cousin of mine went on for around 15 minutes about the drama surrounding her 4th grade class. She spoke with the sort of confidence and excitement only found in someone that young, and even though the actual words and events she was describing were basically meaningless, I was enraptured. That level of misguided enthusiasm is what endeared me the most to Motherless Brooklyn, Edward Norton’s passion project about politics and murder in 1950s New York and Lionel Essrog, the private eye with severe Tourette’s at the center, played by Norton.
Adapted from Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 contemporary novel, Norton’s most baffling decision as a writer/director comes in transcoding the novel’s setting to the 50s as opposed to finding anything interesting to say in its discussion of race in a modern setting. Motherless Brooklyn waddles throughout its 144-minute runtime with little to say or do other than be dazzled by its own existence. Like similar grand literary failures, The Goldfinch or Live by Night, Norton’s film seems so shocked that he’s allowed to make the film he’s had the rights to for as long as I’ve been alive, that he forgets to do anything of note with his white whale project. While it’s not nearly as painful as The Goldfinch or as disjointed as Live by Night, Motherless Brooklyn gleefully spins through the novel’s plot machinations as if simple recreation can result in a similar level of quality.
Norton, in his typical fashion, recently described how many favors he had to call in to get the film made, bemoaning what he will be appearing in for the next few years as retribution for the production and semi-wide release of this film. It’s a shame then, that for his troubles he collected career-laziest performances from the whole impressive cast, barring himself and Ethan Suplee. Maybe that was his intention, that if Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Willem Dafoe all sleepwalk through their monologues and Big Dramatic Moments, the only natural response would be to praise Norton himself. And if that is the case…it worked.
Barring the ethics (or quality) of Norton going as hard into the Tourette’s tics and fidgets as possible, the performance works best as Lionel is apologizing for himself in tilted shame and silent resignation to the unhappiness that he thinks he’ll live with for his whole life. He’s a man trying so hard to do good in a bad, complicated world, that when the film’s conclusion rolls around with a gentle whimper, the disappointment is offset by the feeling that such a final beat was inevitable.
That feeling seeps into the entire film on reflection; that Motherless Brooklyn is a disappointing, slow film with few clear goals and fewer clear ideas as to how to make those goals come to fruition, but it remained not just watchable, but pleasant for every minute it spent with me. And that distinction is important, because most films the viewer walks alongside, where a film like Motherless Brooklyn reverses the roles. It’s so eager to please and demanding of a gold star and a pat on the head that it never risks losing your half-hearted attention through any risk or potential slight against its inevitable future as a TNT Sunday afternoon feature once it’s been scrubbed clean of the ‘fucks and ‘shit’s that never seem to sit right in such an unassuming film.
Pleasant is not the word people are usually looking for in a sprawling crime epic; without seeing the film, I can say with decent certainty that nobody has or will call The Irishman pleasant or unassuming, but those adjectives do make for a passively enjoyable experience. Only the most reductive ideas will be challenged in Motherless Brooklyn, and only the most undemanding eyes will walk away completely satisfied, but compared to the absolute disgust of something like The Goldfinch, this ambitious tome of a film being only partially satisfying is a net win for Norton.
Maybe it’s because it’s one of the few times this decade where you can see him enjoying making films again, or maybe it’s because my expectations were so low walking in, but not even all the wasted talent in the world (Mr. Turner cinematographer Dick Pope and composers Daniel Pemberton and Thom Yorke join the film’s cast in offering passable work that pains in miserable comparison to their other work, although Precious editor Joe Klotz manages to cut a film in a way that is watchable, a step up from his aforementioned Oscar-nominated work) can turn Motherless Brooklyn into an experience I walked away from without a tinge of respect and understanding in my eye.
I have no desire to recommend Motherless Brooklyn, although I am glad that I watched it. “Cinematic white noise” will never be a poster pull-quote, and it sounds mean, but it’s necessary to remember that white noise is designed to make the listener feel safe, relaxed, and in control. The best films wrestle control from you, the worst films presume they already have it, but Motherless Brooklyn is uninterested in control. It is just honored that you considered sitting with it in the first place.
C Review alec baldwin bruce willis c daniel pemberton dick pope edward norton ethan suplee gugu mbatha-raw joe klotz jonathan lethem live by night motherless brooklyn mr. turner precious the goldfinch the irishman thom yorke willem dafoe