We’ve seen it with The Goldfinch and The King; Director/actor Edward Norton’s latest film proves that 2019 really isn’t the year for book-to-film adaptations with a runtime over 140 minutes.
Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton), a lonely private detective, is anything but normal. He twitches uncontrollably, says random things, and his head isn’t at rest until everything is like he needs it to be. On the other hand, he remembers almost anything he sees and/or hears. Lionel is investigating the motives behind a murder of his mentor and friend Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who was on the verge of uncovering something great – something that touches every level of the society in 50s Brooklyn – before being gunned down.
Set to beautiful jazz compositions and a very moody Thom Yorke song, Motherless Brooklyn is a heavily atmospheric piece, showing the city in a noir beauty. The local jazz bars are tight places full of people, where cigarette smoke lingers around in the air, almost as if another character. Lionel meets with Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a daughter of an owner of such club, and a social activist fighting for the rights of poor and non white in the borough. Against her, in the cold marble offices stands Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), officially just a park planner, in reality the most powerful man in the city of New York. Moses is a formidable foe, who’s screen presence never leaves the film. Even with so many talented actors involved, Alec Baldwin stands out amongst them and gives what’s very likely the best performance of his career. Moses has a real sense of danger to him and steals every scene he is in, especially the film’s highlight: a monologue about power spoken in public baths.
Despite the plethora of characters, all portrayed by great actors, few of them are memorable. The film simply features way too many, most of which end up not being important at all. Paul’s (Willem Dafoe) screen time is used for spewing exposition, thus never getting an emotional moment the film wanted him to have. Lionel’s and Laura’s relationship stars as purely professional, she is subsequently turned into a romantic interest for him. This subplot takes up a large portion of the second act for that time it kills the movie’s pacing. Audience is not given enough to invest in Laura or the relationship they’re building, despite how much time they spend together. Their romance is thinly constructed and hardly believable and the payoff we’re getting is basically non-existent. Both of them are loners, but in a neo-noir world like this, isn’t everyone?
Boasting an impressive runtime of 144 minutes, Motherless Brooklyn’s best shot at keeping the viewer engaged is letting him piece the pieces of this puzzle together inside his head. The greatest detective stories are not about what happened, but how and why. At first, the film seems it will follow this formula of making the viewer think. Unfortunately, whenever the plot gets a tad too complicated, Motherless Brooklyn turns to voice-overs and flashbacks, carefully explaining the situation so that no matter how little attention you pay, you will know what’s going on. By the time the climax comes around, there is no need to be invested in what’s happening as it will surely be explained in the upcoming minutes.
Writer/director/actor Edward Norton offers his long-developed passion project, rich in atmospheric moments making up the beautiful backdrop of the story, and lacking in every other aspect. Despite a multitude of shortcomings, Motherless Brooklyn is a detective drama in the spirit of noir which has become uncommon recently.