No one walks into a film written and directed by Edward Norton with strong expectations one way or the other. Or, if they do, it doesn’t have anything to do with his track record holding a pen or a camera (they probably just saw that bummer of a prestige 90s Oscar-bait movie trailer). No one really knows what Norton is like in those roles because he hasn’t filled them. Motherless Brooklyn marks his first credit as a screenwriter and only his second as a director, and the last directorial effort, Keeping the Faith, came nineteen years back.
Like Brooklyn, it was a slightly charming middling effort that overstayed its runtime. But it didn’t say much about Norton other than that he had a decent eye and was just getting started. However, with two completely different films under his belt that run into similar abstract issues of malaise—which can be summed up by the amorphous, infuriating, yet true “it just didn’t work” critique—we can confidently say that performing is his greatest strength.
Norton’s neo-noir adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel follows Lionel Essrog (Norton), a prodigious detective in 1950s New York City (originally 90s New York, as Lethem wrote it) with a low professional ceiling due to the drawbacks of Tourette’s Syndrome. Everything he hears plays back in his head like a recording upon command, making him a terrific private eye on paper, but Bailey—what he names the “anarchist” Tourette’s side of his brain—makes the discretion aspect of the job nearly impossible.
Bruce Willis plays lead detective Frank Minna in one of the most wooden performances he’s given in his career, no doubt a product of his descent into direct-to-VOD standards as of late. After Frank is murdered during a puzzling chain of events, Lionel weaves his way through a maze of goons, fedoras, and jazz dens to avenge his boss/father figure by unspooling the mystery.
The ever-expanding case feels like a parody at first, and though it eventually shirks that tone, it’s frustrating how long it takes to convert its audience from disenchantment to average intrigue, much of which comes from the frequent arrival of familiar faces (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Cherry Jones, Bobby Cannavale, Willem Dafoe, Alec Baldwin, Leslie Mann, Fisher Stevens, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Ethan Suplee). And it’s even more frustrating, even confounding, that a film as layered this—with such an impressive, accomplished cast and crew as a foundation—feels so stagnant.
Brooklyn spotlights the corruption of titan institutions and the systemic issues they bleed — like the politicization of American capitalism, the reckless abandon of social justice, the corporatization of local politics, racism, gentrification, and the cracks through which rich weasels can wiggle to ensure their own concocted innocence. But outside of some punchy one-liners (“an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man”—a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote at that), the severity and passion behind Norton’s project rarely pops.
There’s clearly supposed to be a gnawing, dehumanizing aggravation (think: Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake or Sorry to Bother You) that burrows under our skin and boils our emotions into a righteous, rioting anger in the name of human rights, but the constant haze of uncovered injustices never amounts to more than a pretty scene. And while the lack of depth is as significant a demerit as any, the film isn’t totally inanimate.
It gleams on the surface with impeccable production and costume design (Beth Mickle, Amy Roth), a few strong performances (Norton chief among them), and a smoky Daniel Pemberton jazz score that will undoubtedly outlive the film. Contributions from rock icons like Thom Yorke and Flea are completely out of place, but they’re still quite lovely. The Atoms for Peace duo’s theme song is like a piece from another puzzle box that somehow snuck into this one and made it into the final puzzle without anyone stopping to point out the inconsistencies.
Jazz legend Wynton Marsalis is a much more understandable contributor, trumpeting warm, mellow undercurrents and sharp, brassy howls into Pemberton’s effortlessly restrained score, which conjures more emotion than what’s on screen, providing thrills or chastening the pace as needed. The ever-varying nature of jazz is a fine metaphor for Lionel’s beautiful, enigmatic, and chaotic mind, but the tonal parallels can’t muster up the fraught mysterious energy that could have potentially enveloped us in a darker, less conventional, and more affecting version of the same film.
The twisty narrative does require its viewers to think, which is something worth celebrating in a world where major studios have all but installed answer-pumping feeding tubes into audiences, or at the very least, created the expectation that movies should be intellectually bankrupt. Norton’s voiceover is another faint plus. It’s nice in a nostalgic way, Norton channeling the exact tone and mood of his iconic Fight Club narration. But nothing is enough to distract us from the ultimate inertia at Brooklyn’s core, and the collateral fatigue it begets.