If my years of loving cinema have taught me one thing, it is to always be wary of a ‘passion project’. I’m talking about those movies who have a single writer/director/actor attached to them. Sometimes it really works, like Yentl or Annie Hall, and other times it really, really doesn’t; I’m thinking William Shatner’s Groom Lake and Tommy Wiseau’s The Room! Reportedly twenty years in the making, it was now the turn of Edward Norton to show us what side of the spectrum his labour of love would end up on.
Adapted from a 1999 novel of the same name, Motherless Brooklyn tells the story of Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) a New York based private investigator with Tourette’s syndrome who becomes obsessed with solving the murder case of his former boss. With the setting changed from the 1990s to the 1950s, the film evokes a strong noir vibe that, whilst being mostly pretty to look at, feels way too forced to make for immersive and intriguing viewing. Not to mention, the narrative just isn’t interesting enough to capture an audience’s attention for an extremely long feeling two and half hour runtime.
The film touches on a lot of potentially compelling themes, namely the racist motivations behind much of New York’s regeneration and gentrification projects through the years, but unfortunately the story moves at such a glacial pace that any interest generated in one scene doesn’t quite manage to transfer to the next. I accused The Irishman of being far too long recently, and whilst I still hold that opinion, it is striking to think back after watching Motherless Brooklyn and realise just how much better Martin Scorsese and co. were able to hold the viewer’s attention. Ultimately, that boils down to a better script, a better filmmaking craft and an altogether better told story.
This kind of noir drama certainly lends itself to showy, over the top performances, and there is certainly a lot of that going on across the cast. As protagonist Lionel, Edward Norton works hard to nail down all of the physical ticks and uncontrolled outbursts of the character’s Tourette’s syndrome, but in my opinion the display never feels entirely natural. Norton in general is always fairly good in his performances, and whilst he injects a lot of empathy and endearing compassion into Lionel, to me he never feels like a truly realised character, more a caricature.
The film boasts a surprisingly impressive cast to be honest, with the likes of Alec Baldwin, Willem Defoe, Bruce Willis, Bobby Cannavale and Michael K. Williams all playing significant supporting roles. Whilst Baldwin and Cannavale feel at home in this hard boiled noir atmosphere, it has to be said that Defoe suffers from a touch of ‘one noteness’, which is disappointing given his calibre.
Two cast members who do manage to handle the hammy dialogue and turn their performances into memorable moments of the film are Cherry Jones as anti-gentrification campaigner Gabby Horowitz and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as her employee Laura Rose. Mbatha-Raw in particular plays a integral part in connecting Lionel’s investigations to the larger story, and together her and Norton do share a pleasing chemistry.
Overall, I have to say that Motherless Brooklyn is a bit of a slog. It’s clear that Edward Norton has a great deal of passion for this project, but that passion unfortunately does not translate to positive results on the screen. It’s too long, it’s too slow and ultimately it just isn’t very interesting. A handful of strong performances aren’t enough to save the film from falling on the wrong side of boring. As pet projects go, it certainly has a small hint of indulgence on Norton’s part, but more than his hand in the writing/direction/acting, Motherless Brooklyn simply doesn’t feel compelling enough to be worth the extended runtime.