Norton’s crime caper talks the talk and doesn’t really walk the walk.
“Motherless Brooklyn,” Edward Norton’s first directing job since “Keeping the Faith,” is a 1950s crime noir that mostly relies on big dialogue to keep the train rolling. As a film critic, I took as much notes as possible to bring it all together. It has actors playing their roles at a low key tone, but they seem overly committed to the script, based upon Jonathan Lethem’s novel.
When I saw this at the New York Film Festival’s Closing Night, I was moved by Norton’s words of expanding his horizons and really expressing himself as an actor or filmmaker. I just wish the movie could be as beautiful as that speech.
Norton plays private detective Lionel Essrog, who tries to unravel the mystery behind the murder of his mentor Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), while dealing with Tourette Syndrome. Because of that disease, “IF” becomes his movie catch phrase. To get closer in the case, he poses as a reporter for the NY Post, by stealing an ID card.
The A-list cast includes Gugu Mbatha-Raw as an activist, whom Lionel becomes close with during his investigation; Bobby Cannavale as his boss; Alec Baldwin as Moses Randolph, the sadistic and racist builder, who runs the Borough Authority; Willem Dafoe as his once-successful engineer brother; Josh Pais as his right hand man; Michael Kenneth Williams as a trumpet player, who sees something in Lionel that he admires; and Leslie Mann has a small role as Frank’s greedy widow.
“Motherless Brooklyn” works well when Norton’s character struggles with his syndrome. Loud music and violence edged it out, and marijuana helps keep it at ease. That’s sincere acting I’m seeing, especially when he narrates the events in his life. He even explains to some people his condition, and most of the time, they sympathize that.
I also admired the likable supporting work from Mbatha-Raw and Baldwin with the former being a key in this case, and the latter being corrupt. They have their respective moments with Norton, while Dafoe basically goes through the motions, insulting the hero’s examinations at all their encounters.
But what didn’t really interest me was its big dialogue and routine moments. The words involve crime and politics, and so much of that was going on that it only provided me with cliff notes. It’s not as gritty as Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” another film I saw at this year’s festival. And I also got tired of Norton getting beaten by men for snooping around. It’s a bit too predictable for my tastes.
“Motherless Brooklyn” is a committed project by Norton, but perhaps it’s too committed to be a crime caper classic.
In Theaters November 1