Motherless Brooklyn movie review: Edward Norton sabotages his passion project
Director - Edward Norton
Cast - Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Michael K Williams, Bobby Cannavale, Bruce Willis
Written, produced, directed by and starring Edward Norton, Motherless Brooklyn is the sort of passion project that is made only when everyone agrees that they’re dealing with top-draw material. That, or Norton had some quality dirt on a top-level Warner Bros executive.
How he managed to convince a studio with which he doesn’t have a longstanding legacy relationship — Norton has appeared in just one WB movie in the last decade — to pay him millions to make a nearly two-and-a-half hour detective drama with a central cast whose average age is probably about 55, is beyond me.
Watch the Motherless Brooklyn trailer here
It is a film in which people listen to jazz and uncover real estate scams; a film in which Willem Dafoe plays an engineer and Michael K Williams plays the trumpet. Its final showdown is not a physical confrontation on a rooftop, but a verbal one across a table. What I’m trying to get as is this: films like Motherless Brooklyn aren’t made these days.
And almost as if to test how far he’d be allowed to push things, Norton, in his infinite wisdom as the sole credited writer of the piece, has transported the contemporary plot of Jonathan Lethem’s source novel to the 1950s. Just because he loves a good gumshoe story.
As a tribute to the fast-fading genre, Motherless Brooklyn certainly looks the part — with more stylish costumes than you’d see at the Met Gala, scored to the luxurious tones of a saxophone by the always interesting Daniel Pemberton, and set-decorated to within an inch of its life. Narratively, however, Norton’s screenplay could do with another pass or two.
Often, he gets so bogged down by the minutia of his period New York that he loses sight of the most interesting themes of the story. Motherless Brooklyn is more than just a character study of a private eye with Tourette’s; it is a tale about corruption, both moral and political. But Norton takes such an inaccessible route in tackling ideas of systemic racism and social inequality that for a moment you wonder if all he wanted out of his movie was an excuse to revisit his heyday as an actor in the 90s.
Norton has never been a subtle performer. He is a good actor, but nearly incapable of allowing the story to be the priority and not himself. In that regard, he is a lot like our very own Nawazuddin Siddiqui, blessed with the unique talent of making even silences as bombastic as a rallying cry in a war movie.
Norton’s distractingly loud performance would’ve most likely been excused had Motherless Brooklyn come out in the 90s, when he was delivering films such as Primal Fear and American History X. But in today’s context, it feels more outdated than nostalgic. Sadly, so does the film.