Passion projects are a difficult thing in that they often lack perspective. Case in point: Edward Norton’s adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel Motherless Brooklyn, a project the actor has reportedly been trying to bring to the screen for nearly two decades. You have to admire his tenacity and bravado concerning the project as he’s not only starring in the film but has written the screenplay and is directing as well. To give credit where it’s due, Norton accords himself admirably on all fronts as the movie is a handsome production with spot-on production values recreating New York City of the 1950s, while he continues to impress with his acting.
Yet, it’s the structure of the film and the approach to Norton’s character that nearly leads to its undoing as Brooklyn is far too long and meandering to justify its big reveal, while the tone and purpose of its protagonist is questionable. Set in 1950s New York, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) operates a sketchy private detective firm and runs afoul of some unsavory types that gun him down. Who they are or why they would commit such an act is the mystery that drives the movie, as fellow detective Lionel Esso (Norton) takes it upon himself to solve his mentor’s murder, a quest that will uncover widespread corruption at the highest level of the city’s government.
As the web of deceit unfolds, Norton’s narrative becomes murkier as the purpose of certain characters is never truly explained, while one or two red herrings prove frustrating. And therein lies the problem with the film: Norton is obviously too close to the material and far too enamored with it to cut it down to make it more compelling and brisker. Without question, the movie is a compelling concoction of period design and attitude but far too often, the story sags when it should pop. A pair of outside, objective eyes would have benefited this project greatly.
Equally troubling is the approach Norton takes to his character, who happens to have Tourette’s Syndrome. Replete with physical tics and verbal outbursts, Lethem’s intent was obviously to create a portrait of a man struggling to overcome this condition in order to function admirably. This may play well on the page but on screen there are moments when Esso’s affliction is used for cheap laughs, while his unique condition comes off as far too convenient once certain clues fall into place. In the end, the whole production reeks of being Oscar-bait for Norton’s multi-pronged efforts.
Still, the fine cast keeps us hooked until the end. Gugu Mbatha-Raw gives a fierce performance as an activist lawyer who’s sucked into these shenanigans and winds up being a love interest for Esso, a conceit that fails to hold water. In addition to Willis, Bobby Cannavale makes the most of his moments as one of Minna’s partners, while Willem Defoe contributes his trademark manic gravitas. Most impressive is Alec Baldwin as Moses Randolph, a city planner at the center of the mystery who will let nothing stand in the way of his grand plans.
The difference between this and Chinatown, which Norton is obviously hoping his pet project will be favorably compared to, is a matter of execution. Roman Polanski employed a deft touch in service of Robert Towne’s smart screenplay that didn’t pander to the audience. Norton’s approach does not act in service to the story and instead, calls attention to itself. This “Hey, look at me” quality prevents Brooklyn from being the classic its director so desperately wants it to be.