TIFF19: Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn looks a lot cooler than it is. Gosh it pains me to say that. I really wanted Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn to be great, and it isn’t bad, but it doesn’t do a lot to distinguish itself.

Norton plays Lionel Essrog, a private detective who works for friend and boss Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who’s into something deeper than he should be. Lionel doesn’t know what, but when Frank winds up dead on his watch, you can be sure he’s going to find the fuck out.

Lionel, with his tics and Tourette’s, is not your typical P.I. – it’s hard for him to really stay under the radar when he’s yelling out rude things. But he does good work, and he’s very motivated to do right by his friend. Following the clues leads him to Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and to exactly where these things always lead: dirty politicians. Is there any other kind?

Anyway, the movie is a send-up to ye olde film noir of yesteryear, when men wore trenchcoats with deep pockets stuffed with revolvers and fedoras worn specifically so they could be doffed each time a dame walked into the office, though you could barely see her through the yellowed fog of cigarette smoke. The detective was haunted by his past, of course, possibly by a dame he didn’t save in time, but he was stoic, never talked about it much. Just fingered his gun and smoked some more. Motherless Brooklyn puts a slight spin on things by introducing a detective who can’t shut up. And gives him a dame who is, and I’ll whisper this part: not white.

The film is so meticulously put together that sometimes it feels more like a history lesson than gumshoe caper; the diorama of NYC is gritty and seedy, so lovingly rendered that it doubtless earns its A+ but also serves as a distraction in an already bloated movie. And the maddening thing about Motherless Brooklyn is the performances are roundly very good, engaging and solid. But when you throw in the period setting and the metaphors and the big moods and Norton’s search for political relevance, something is bound to get lost. And clocking in at 2.5 hours, that’s a long time to devote your attention to each of the film’s moving parts, especially when things don’t quite add up to what they’ve promised. I also, if I may, think this was a missed opportunity to shoot in black and white. I mean, go all in if you’re gonna go all in. The actual result is a bit of a mixed bag. I think the good outweighs the bad, but at 144 minutes, I think there was opportunity to excise some of the bad completely, but no one has the courage to really wield the knife.

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