Over the last twenty years, Edward Norton has gained a reputation for being a perfectionist and an aesthete, often insisting on creative control and occasionally doing major rewrites of the productions in which he appears. In some ways, it seems as if this interventionism might have marked the end of Norton’s golden era in the mid-2000s, when his desire to take greater control over his films alienated him from directors, screenwriters and mainstream Hollywood. Since then, he’s mainly appeared in arthouse films and smaller roles, meaning that Motherless Brooklyn, his first film as director, is a more defiant statement that might initially appear – proof, one would hope, that he was justified in the artistic and creative decisions he made behind the scenes during his silver age. In addition, Motherless Brooklyn is a fairly ambitious statement on its own terms – an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s 1998 existential detective novel that not only stretches to two and a half hours, but takes significant license with Lethem’s vision by transplanting it from the 1990s back to the 1950s.
It’s a bit surprising, then, that Motherless Brooklyn is one of the most amateur and atonal films to be directed by an actor in recent years, often playing more like a pastiche of other films, or a staged play, rather than a sustained directorial vision. To some extent, there’s a compelling plot here, in which Norton plays Lionel Essrog, a New York detective with Tourette’s syndrome, who finds himself caught up in a citywide conspiracy when he starts to investigate the murder of his partner, Frank Minna, played by Bruce Willis in a very small cameo, despite how heavily billed he is in the film’s posters and promotion. This conspiracy is perhaps most interesting when it focuses on the urban design and history of the city, as Lionel’s peregrinations lead him to Moses Randolph, an industrialist played by Alec Baldwin, Laura Rose, an activist played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Gabby Horowitz, an older activist played by Cherry Jones. Between these three characters, Lionel realises that Minna’s death was bound up with the corrupt rezoning of African-American and Hispanic “slums” to make way for highway, bridges and transit that are only designed to benefit white New Yorkers.
This focus on the rapid and corrupt urban redevelopment of New York occasionally makes for quite an evocative backdrop. In one of his speeches – and there are many speeches throughout the film – Moses Randolph observes that urban planners have to think fifty years in the future, and plan amenities for citizens fifty years in the future. Granted, Moses is only thinking of white citizens, and fully prepared to sacrifice African-American and Hispanic residents for white futurity, but his general point – that cities always exist somewhere between the present and future – does trickle over into the general style and address of Motherless Brooklyn as well. At times, Lionel seems to be caught in a strange, displaced space between past and future, aware that everything he is currently experiencing will eventually be paved over and forgotten, which is perhaps why Norton doesn’t make much of an effort to establish place, beyond a few fairly clichéd period details of the 1950s.
Unfortunately, this urban backdrop, and investigative narrative, is bogged down in endless exposition that requires constant speechifying simply to move it along, much of which is announced by a deus ex machina, played by Willem Dafoe, who appears every now and then to insert big chunks of plot, and direct Lionel to his next interview or assignation. Without a compelling rhythm, most of the film centres on Norton’s performance of Lionel, but even this feels quite actorly and mannered – especially his depiction of Tourette’s, which is foregrounded as the apex of Norton’s auteurism, both as director and actor, but which also conveniently recedes from any scenes where it might impede dramatic momentum, especially long talking scenes that are essential for the exposition of the story.
Sometimes a period crime film can subsist on atmosphere when the plot and characterisation are minimal, but what’s most surprising about Motherless Brooklyn is that Norton evinces almost no visual sense for his material – or visual interest in his material – despite having appeared in some of the most visually innovative films of the 1990s and early 2000s. Most of the scenes feel barely visualised, as half-hearted fades, cheesy slow-motion, copious flashbacks and long, tedious jazz scenes substitute for any real atmosphere. Similarly, most spaces feel notional, provisional or hypothetical, with very little in the way of evocative décor or real production design. To some extent, this fits with Lionel’s sense of inhabiting a city that is gradually being displaced by a future that he will never see. However, it also feels as if Norton is simply falling back upon a generic 1950s affect to do the heavy lifting, without any real interest in distinguishing himself from the small-scale noir pastiches, from Gangster Squad to Rules Don’t Apply, that have proliferated in recent years.
In that respect, the worst decision of Motherless Brooklyn is to transplant Lethem’s novel from the 1990s to the 1950s. This sense of pastiche would have worked much better against the postmodern backdrop of the 1990s – which is presumably why Lethem chose it – especially since this was also Norton’s heyday as an actor. At times, I wondered whether Norton had chosen to move away from the 1990s to avoid nostalgia for his own era, since that would have signalled this as late work in a more emphatic or confronting manner. I was also curious what Norton had taken away from the films he appeared in, if not their visual style and panache, since Motherless Brooklyn feels like the work of a theatre actor who has made a sudden transition to film, rather than a film actor who has worked with some of the most innovative directors and screenwriters of his time. From the way Norton directs, he seems to think a film is more or less the sum of its actors, or even that the films in which he’s appeared are simply the sum of his performance in them, or his impact on other actors.
For all those reasons, there’s something profoundly solipsistic about Motherless Brooklyn, which ultimately plays like an audio book read by Norton rather than a fully-formed film. His presentational style delivers the words of the novel rather than genuinely adapting them, let alone translating them into a sustained visual approach. At times, he appears to have simply transplanted the book, scene by scene, to the big screen, without trying to adapt it in any genuine way, which may explain why the film is so long – most of the book is in the screenplay, or at least as much of the book as is possible or plausible for a cinematic release, since it’s not hard to imagine a director’s cut of the film that is twice as long. One of the curious by-products of this approach is that Norton doesn’t seem to have a clear sense of his own strengths as a director, occasionally stumbling onto great moments by accident, and moving away from them just as quickly. Midway through, there’s a great sequence when Lionel breaks away from the other investigators, and starts tracking and trailing various characters, instead of engaging in endless exposition with or at them. Yet this sequence is over before it has a chance to really get going, as Norton once again returns to the text of the novel, to dense dialogue, and to his own actorly presence, leaving this ambience behind.
Paradoxically, this slavish focus on the text of the novel prevents Motherless Brooklyn tapping into the most original aspect of Lethem’s style – the inflection of a hard-boiled noir lexicon through the tics and quirks of Tourette’s. You can see how this would really work on paper, where it must produce a prose style that is almost musical, given the ways in which Lionel’s outbursts harmonise with the modal jazz played at the nightclubs he visits. Here, however, it rarely rises above the level of a gimmick – or worse, a mere canvas for Norton’s auteurist and actorly pretensions, which are ultimately the main subject matter of Motherless Brooklyn, a film that is so desperate to transplant and rival its source material to the big screen that it displaces it in the process, resulting in a strangely vacant experience.