Cinematic Releases: Motherless Brooklyn (2019) - Reviewed

Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn, a New York based modern-day hard-boiled detective story about a small-town private eye stricken with Tourette’s syndrome on a quest for the man who murdered his mentor, became a long gestating dream project of the film’s writer-producer-director-lead actor Edward Norton.  Having only directed one film with the 2000 romantic comedy Keeping the Faith, the project sat on the shelf for the next two decades with Norton garnering a reputation in Hollywood as a difficult or demanding actor. 

Circa 2019 however after a small hiatus from the public eye before the actor/director’s own production company Class 5 Films funded the project, Edward Norton has finally realized Motherless Brooklyn onto the silver screen as a 1950s-set period film noir of sorts.  Co-starring Bruce Willis, Ethan Suplee, Alec Baldwin, Leslie Mann and Willem Dafoe, the picture is a star-studded odyssey which ala-Chinatown presents its protagonist with a mystery containing almost boundless twists and turns leading him towards the upper echelon of society’s most powerful men. 

If there’s a central criticism to bring against Norton’s crime investigation epic we’ve seen many times over in the time-honored tradition of shaggy-dog film noir and edgier detective stories, it’s the languid pacing which amounts to a sprawling near two-and-a-half hour running time.  For the story’s topic of urban development threatening the stability of local communities, Norton’s film addresses this topic with the urgency of a promenade.  What keeps the audience from drifting away however is Norton’s screen presence and always solid acting though some will find his Oscar-fishing performance of a detective with a variety of tic disorders a little grating.

In terms of production design by Beth Mickle, the film sports an excellent attention to 1950s American period detail with The Illusionist cinematographer Dick Pope giving the noir-ish proceedings a somewhat somber visual schema.  Then there’s the original score by Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse composer Daniel Pemberton which bears that kind of sleepy saxophone Jazz melancholy synonymous with noir, lending a moody flavor to Norton’s detective story.  Naturally being a film noir, the film is rife with Norton's voiceover narration which in itself is a cliche but under Norton's lead we hardly mind.

Overall Motherless Brooklyn is a good, refreshing dose of modern film-noir which we’ve seen many times before yet the cast keeps things engaging and Norton’s direction of the crime investigation thriller genre is solid.  Though a bit on the long side with areas where the belt could have been tightened a little, there’s a decent crime drama and character driven piece here prominently featuring one of the industry’s most gifted performers.  Motherless Brooklyn serves up familiar terrain for most moviegoers but Norton’s direction and acting more than makes it worth your while.

--Andrew Kotwicki