‘Motherless Brooklyn’ doesn’t get noir right

Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Motherless Brooklyn (2019)

Motherless Brooklyn (2019)

Directed by Edward Norton

If it wasn’t for Edward Norton’s inspired performance as Lionel “Brooklyn” Essrog, a detective who struggles with Tourette syndrome, “Motherless Brooklyn” (an NYC-set noir period piece) wouldn’t have had enough of a draw to make it past video-on-demand. Norton’s script and direction (his first writing credit, but his second directorial effort), on the other hand, don’t pack the same punch.

When Lionel’s friend and associate is murdered, he leaves behind clues that Lionel believes will lead him to the culprits of the crime. Lionel thinks his friend had learned of a cover-up at the highest level of New York City’s government, but he’s stonewalled every which way by politicians, thugs, and well-meaning people who don’t know better. The plot is well-known—our protagonist gets big break after big break until he finds the answers he seeks—but then what?

Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn (2019)

Lionel is a different kind of detective than we’ve seen in these ‘50s-set noir dramas. The Tourettes, yes, but he also prefers tea to coffee, sensitivity to brooding, and thinking to shooting. In fact, he rarely brandishes a weapon at all. This isn’t your grandfather’s detective movie, though it may have been his detective novel—the book Norton adapted was a bestseller and award winner. What went wrong, then? Norton’s script lacks the classic Humphrey Bogart sound (of course, so does Norton the actor). Once Leslie Mann’s character—the wife of Lionel’s murdered friend—dismisses Lionel for using the grandstanding type of language we’re so used to seeing in classic noir movies (I think the line was “I promise I’ll make them pay” or something…she basically says, “Don’t promise me anything, because I couldn’t care less”), “Motherless Brooklyn” backs off it. We love noir for being “gritty” and realistic, but was it ever really realistic? Who talks like that? But that’s why it’s so cool. When Bogart, Orson Welles, or Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes spouts a suave, totally silly line, we think “Damn, I wish I could get away with saying a line that cool.” I never thought that while watching “Motherless Brooklyn.”

Edward Norton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Motherless Brooklyn (2019)

But in other ways, “Motherless Brooklyn” has those same noir vibes. Daniel Pemberton evokes the classics with his Golden Globe-nominated score. Oooo that sounded good. And the story, like I mentioned before, follows in the footsteps of the greats that walked before it. Plus, old cars and hats and stuff. But “Motherless Brooklyn” isn’t dark enough for me. It’s production and cinematography felt too cheap, too modern, too well-lit. It needed to be gritty. It felt too clean, too buttoned-up. That’s probably how it was in the novel. Lionel just isn’t the same kind of ‘50s-detective-out-for-revenge that we’re used to seeing. That’s a nice change of pace, but also, don’t we like what we’re used to seeing? I do. I wish this had been grimmer, I wish the stakes had been higher, and I wish the dialogue wasn’t so amateur. I wish I had felt worse about taking a little nap in the middle of the movie, but I didn’t. I wasn’t in a rush to power through the second half of this 145-minute slog.

5.5/10

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