With a wide range of quality, 2019 has been the year of the long gestating passion project: from Ang Lee’s Gemini Man to Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. That includes Edward Norton. Since he read Jonathan Lethem’s eponymous novel in 1999, he’s wanted to adapt the work—and in multiple ways, Motherless Brooklyn is a film of its time, or could’ve been time: portraying a white savant with a disability—in this case Tourette Syndrome—put into a position where he overcomes his malady to become a girl-magnet hero.
Norton plays the film’s genius protagonist Lionel Essrog—a man with a photographic memory carrying the moniker of “freak show” from his co-workers due to his behavioral ticks. He—along with Tony (Bobby Cannavale), Danny (Dallas Roberts), and Gilbert (Ethan Suplee)—work for private investigator Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). On the trail of something big, Minna is gunned down by his employers and it’s up to Lionel to figure out what happened, while contending with a gigantic outside force in Moses Randolph (a searing Alec Baldwin) and a mysterious informant Paul (Willem Dafoe). While Motherless Brooklyn, as a quirky but cliche Neo-Noir entices by presenting a larger socio-economic foil with gusto, Norton as an adaptive screenwriter makes several critical errors in his cinematic rendering.
One applies in the narrative’s character development. In Norton’s effecting performance, especially with regards to representing Tourette Syndrome, there’s little room for anyone else in his burrowing adaption to astonish, especially his Black characters. Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the against-type dame in this film, initially strides strongly. A soon-to-be lawyer working to expand housing for Blacks and the poor quickly patters into a narrative alley where the streetlight doesn’t shine: diminished into a love interest to Lionel and a pawn for the men surrounding her. Her origins hold the key to the events surrounding Minna’s death, and could carry Motherless Brooklyn—if only Norton realized her full capabilities.
Worse yet, there’s also the Trumpet Man (Michael K. Williams) who initially blows sharp notes at an admiring white fan. The famed musician learned his trade by “sucking off little white boys” he spouts with a sneer to the White fan asking advice. Resentful of a white society in the midst of an explosion in infrastructure and jobs, who tossed away post-war Blacks, he’s meant to shake the viewer from their sleepy gentrified shuffle. But he fades from earshot and becomes relatively mute —unless he’s espousing how similar himself and Lionel are. In fact, one scene still sticks with me. When Lionel calls to organize a meeting with Moses Randolph to talk turkey, in his background is a tableau. Around the sleuth sits the Black characters no more animated than the art behind them. In Motherless Brooklyn, Black characters aren’t the movers and shakers, they don’t write the articles of change, they’re pretty paintings on the wall informing the larger conversation. Adaption, the truncating and expansion of characters can change such, but it doesn’t here.
Moreover, in other narrative regions, Norton’s adaption transits slower than frozen rail tracks. Frank’s wife Julia (Leslie Mann): minor and forgettable past a floozy portrayal, could’ve been truncated to save time on an already bloated 144 minutes. Motherless Brooklyn also uses weed as a character detail: one of the substances other than gum that calms Lionel, which is mostly inserted to conjoin Thom Yorke’s somber original song “Daily Battles” with the on-screen events. The effect numbs a couple of the sleek match cuts Norton wants to rely on.
Motherless Brooklyn is just a basic accompaniment to A Beautiful Mind; it’s striking a beat too late. When Norton’s story of a gumshoe savant working the case does swing, it happens through the middle act, when the gritty Noir-based investigation shoe horns racial and classist housing inequality, grounding its foundation in New York’s infrastructure history. It happens when Moses Randolph—based upon the real life “master builder” Robert Moses—clutches his bulldozing power to parting intentions. It’s when Lionel employs his tricks of the trade to grease intelligence from unsuspecting witnesses. That’s when Motherless Brooklyn forms its connective narrative suspensions: buttressed by quietly sweeping suites of horns and taps of gumshoe high hats that offer soothing splashes of information rather than sticky obtrusive hits.
In any case, Norton does discover a type of rhythm that partly shifts the meandering adaption into a cliche but tuneful Neo-Noir, one that makes his long wait to see it on screen somewhat worth it to someone. Which makes Motherless Brooklyn a noble failure, but a failure nonetheless.