A passion project without the passion

Edward Norton wrote, directed and starred in Motherless Brooklyn, an endeavour he’s been chipping away at for 20 years — and it’s a mess.

In the opening sequence of Motherless Brooklyn, there’s a murder. A private detective is gunned down in an altercation, and one of his associates, Lionel Essrog (Ed Norton), sets out to solve the case. Essrog, however, suffers from Tourette’s and OCD compulsions, which challenge the traditional norms of the private dick genre. He also has a photographic memory, his gift that makes him a valued asset in spite of his inability to blend into a crowd. 

Of all his verbal tics, his frequent outbursts of “if” are the most foreboding. If only he were paying attention, maybe his friend wouldn’t have died. If only he weren’t afflicted with neurological problems; if only his mother didn’t die; if only he weren’t so alone. In the grander scheme of things, then:  if only Lionel Essrog’s story, adapted from a novel by Jonathan Lethem, was not written and directed by Ed Norton.

Norton first read Lethem’s book in 1999 and has worked 20 years to bring it to the screen. While the book is set in contemporary New York, Norton transplanted it to the 1950s because he felt it had a film noir vibe. As with most noir stories, the murder leads our detective down a path that draws him into a greater conspiracy of corruption in local borough politics. The transplantation of the era creates a kind of parable, and the threads that connect the various levels of egocentric officials and disregard for the poor to the current moment still feels salient.

Motherless Brooklyn remains a mess. It is a passion project without passion. Running at nearly two and a half hours, it feels its length and takes its time to get started up. The opening sequence, which like most great mysteries gives you everything you need to know, is already clumsy and convoluted. The audience struggles to keep track of all the goings-on as this opening sequence is plagued with clumsy continuity errors and confusing montage rhythms. The sequence, which should have been clear as day, starts everything up on the wrong foot as we spend the next 20 or so minutes trying to piece together the basic incidents of the inciting moment. 

Things improve slightly for the large middle section as Lionel Essrog abandons his office to go on his investigation. Norton is fine as Essrog, but he sometimes lacks generosity of spirit in the way he deals with other actors. He acts more than he listens, creating a strange atmosphere in a film that already has a clumsy construction. In spite of an all-star cast that includes Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis, Bobby Cannavale and Michael Kenneth Williams, few actors are given room to breathe and inject personality into their roles. Only Willem Dafoe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Leslie Mann (in a small part) can find their footing. For better and for worse, this is an Ed Norton showcase.

Ed Norton’s adaptation of the novel suffers from fundamental narrative issues. He struggles to find a stable balance, focusing far too much attention on exposition, setting up all these little clues that he will pick up nearly an hour later as the audience has mostly forgotten or stopped caring about their significance. He has a way of altogether dropping entire characters and storylines, giving the impression that the whole world stops existing if they’re not on screen. The movie seems to treat all characters who aren’t Essrog in the way a child imagines that when you turn off the TV, everyone on it ceases to exist. It is a frustrating quirk that does little to endear empathy to the journey we are being taken on.

Even beyond that, the film’s audiovisual texture feels wrong. The movie has a vibrant jazz soundtrack punctuated by a bizarre and out of place Thom Yorke original score. Still, the film’s visuals in terms of cinematography and montage have no relationship with the modernist soundscape. While shot by one of the greatest living cinematographers, Dick Pope, a frequent collaborator with Mike Leigh, the film looks like a cheap TV movie. The colours, the textures, and the quality of the light are bland and the set-ups functional rather than expressionistic. Even in terms of the film’s sound mix, the music is often far too loud, occasionally drowning out bits and pieces of dialogue. It’s the kind of thing you expect from an independent self-financed production, not a multi-million dollar star-studded movie.

Frankly, Motherless Brooklyn is a trainwreck and considering how inept and half-hazard it feels, it’s remarkable it’s not a whole lot worse. The bones of Lethem’s story still shine through, and you can see the structure of a much better film occasionally rising from the fray. The movie has small moments that work remarkably well, and some of the production design is strong (though, much of the exteriors look too clean and contemporary). It’s a movie that will, no doubt, charm some members of the audience and completely, irreparably alienates others. ■

Motherless Brooklyn opens in theatres Friday, Nov. 1. Watch the trailer here: