starring Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Willem Dafoe
screenplay by Edward Norton, based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem
directed by Edward Norton
by Walter Chaw Edward Norton's twenty-year passion project, this adaptation of Jonathan Lethem's modern noir loses what's affecting about the source material while amplifying, well, Edward Norton. The hero, Lionel Essrog (Norton), is afflicted with OCD and Tourette's. In the book, this means that as his interior monologue is crisp and empathetic, his exterior is kissing people and screaming out anagrams and clever atrocities. In the movie, this means Norton is angling hard for awards recognition playing Rain Man as a gumshoe. I don't mean to be unkind, merely to describe a selfish performance that does very much to attract attention to itself and very little to support a cast that frankly needn't have bothered. It's the worst first date ever--the one where the guy really wants to tell you about himself. Norton's Lionel twitches, grimaces, screams out jibes that are sometimes a little too literary and on-the-mark. He draws attention and that's half the point of it: to create a sensitive, intelligent character appalled by his inability to control his "broken" brain. Yet in an ensemble movie with a Byzantine plot, all it does is suck the air out of the room. There's a shortlist of "unfilmable" novels for any number of reasons (and a few of those, like Under the Skin, were adapted beautifully), but the reasons to leave Motherless Brooklyn free from this sort of literal go are legion.
Motherless Brooklyn has passion about it, and like all great acts of passion it has an almost suffocating narcissism about it, too. It clearly wants to be Chinatown or L.A. Confidential, what with its weaving of history into its fictional lives, positing its villains here as property developers trying to build highways and bridges through neighbourhoods that have been rather dubiously gentrified. As a tract on race, it's shrill and obvious and does no favours for the minorities (jazzbos or young women in neat suits who need a lot of rescuing) it ostensibly champions. If it's Chinatown, it lacks Polanski's architectural refinement, settling for slightly askew low, wide angles that remind particularly of the Coen Brothers. A scene with Frank's shrill widow (Leslie Mann) holding court is shot so "Coens" it plays like something they had the good sense to excise from one of their films. Millers Crossing, say, though I had the passing thought that at least that movie's mise en scène was getting some use.
In an introduction to the film at Telluride, Norton revealed he has wanted to adapt this material since American History X, and that's admirable, both his stick-to-itiveness and his taste. The other danger of passion projects is alas the word suddenly becomes sacrosanct. There are roughly fifteen storylines in James Ellroy's L.A. Confidential, some involving porn and the building of Disneyland. It's the Great American Novel, if you ask me. The film version has about four or five storylines and they lean heavily on the love triangle. Motherless Brooklyn refuses to drop any of the book's rabbit holes and so in a film that feels like its eight hours long, there's no real time to develop any of the characters. Norton suggests a few moments of Tyler Durden, what-I-say-is-not-what-I-mean soulfulness with his hangdog face and smart eyes--features, both, that have defined him as an actor--but mostly this is an Edward Norton Master Thespian masterclass. Willem Dafoe has a thankless task still playing Vincent Van Gogh, this time as a genius architect no one will listen to, except what is it that he's talking about all the time? A power grid of the future? Why is that...look, never mind. I understand Motherless Brooklyn is ultimately about how there's no real way to fight Taminy Hall because institutional corruption is like a land war in China: You don't beat the Chinese, you become Chinese. I get it. I get that there's a Lone Star thing happening where Lionel falls in love with mysterious Laura Rose (Mbatha-Raw) and decides that's all that matters, that there's intrigue in the other guys in Frank's detective agency who met one another in a brutal Catholic orphanage...but where do they all go? There's no room for people in Motherless Brooklyn, a feature-length adaptation of one of those actor's audition monologue anthologies. And in a film essentially about hats and the men who wear them, Norton should've thought about sticking to one.