Telluride Film Review: ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ Stylistically Stumbles

2019 TELLURIDE FILM FESTIVAL: The history of film has weaved through genres that wet the appetites of the audiences that surround the theaters.  Three-time Academy Award nominee Edward Norton’s new noir “Motherless Brooklyn” is a callback to a simpler time in cinema where viewers were entertained with a juicy mystery story and not necessarily a layered or complex character. Pulling duties as a director, writer, and star, Norton constructs a fascinating and gorgeous crime thriller but there are times it feels as if his own indulgent tendencies are his own hurdles.  Bulky screen time aside, the movie is likely to divide not only critics but general moviegoers due to a grating and sure-to-be divisive character.

Motherless Brooklyn,” tells the story of Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton), a private detective living with Tourette Syndrome in 1950s New York.  When his mentor and only friend Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) is murdered, Lionel ventures out to solve his murder.  With very little clues on motives and his own obsessive mind, Lionel begins to unravel closely guarded secrets that could have more consequences on New York City.

A revered actor of his generation, Norton has always been one that is devoted to any role he decides to tackle. His interpretation of Lionel Essrog, a private detective living with Tourette’s syndrome is one of the few instances of actors of his caliber, miscalculating and going TOO inward.  Lionel’s devotion and motivations for his actions are very seldom explored beyond the plot action beat that calls for him to do something “Tourette-sy.” It’s never clear if he is deep within his thoughts as other’s converse, which someone with his condition, and under the circumstances, would likely exhibit. He is a lonely P.I., emphases on “lonely,” and there’s not enough given to feel the heartbreak that would be entrenched if the viewer’s assumptions on his motivations are correct.

Based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem, Norton’s adaptation is very dense and at very specific moments brilliant.  Norton’s inner scribe has the understanding for incentives of characters to make their choices feel genuine, and the movie builds itself as the large puzzle maze that the viewer is also navigating alongside Lionel. Norton is exploring his directorial mannerisms, coming up with his own signatures that great actors-turned-directors have done in the past (i.e. Ron Howard).  He seems to be pulling from his own Rolodex of film history to conceptualize his fueled desire to bring this story to life. There are obvious comparisons to crime sagas such as “L.A. Confidential” and “Chinatown,” which are both apt but perhaps too simplistic of a comparison for Norton to make.  There were moments he dug into films as recent as the Oscar-winning film “The Shape of Water” from Guillermo del Toro and navigating his straight-forward clarity that has made filmmakers Ben Affleck so successful.

As Norton introduced the movie in front of the packed Telluride Film Festival on the first night, Norton spoke about his time spent on the authenticity of the time and the difficulty of doing that while shooting in a contemporary New York City, with very little money.  Wanting to bring this to be the big screen since right after wrapping up his Oscar-nominated work in “American History X,” this has been brewing for two decades.  Film historians, in addition to anyone who was overly familiar with the 1950s will be able to point out some big flaws within his construct from the way Norton refers to black people in the time period, using the terms “black or brown people,” which would never have been said, instead of “colored” or “Negroes.”  Even some of the production elements can’t shake the fluid sound and aura of New York today.  Dick Pope’s creative and genius camera work is also intensely emphasized, subtly showing emotions, but giving the inner artist in all of us to grab onto it and ask interesting questions.

The rest of the cast come to work for Norton as shown by another dedicated and effortless turn from Willem Dafoe as Paul, a man with antics and knowledge that may tie much of this mystery together.  Alec Baldwin as Moses Randolph, a corrupt politician that echoes many of the presumed sensibilities as the current occupant of the White House, is terrific with his limited time, even, at times, emulating some of his Oscar-nominated work in “The Cooler.”

Gugu Mbatha-Raw, no longer an “up and comer” as Norton referred to him in the introduction, is stretching herself as an actress, taking on roles that ask more of her with each outing.  While her role is a tad underwritten and abandoned in favor of Lionel’s own conclusion to be made clear, she maximizes and takes full advantage of the screen when the camera is focused on her.

The real technical mastery that is demonstrated is the bombastic and hypnotic composition of the film’s musical score, provided by the multi-talented Daniel Pemberton; the single greatest effort of his career to date and something that is fully worthy of accolades this film year.

Motherless Brooklyn” has its fair share of issues, and there will be plenty that is repulsed by its every existence, however, there’s an awkward and vivid beauty that draws others to it and dares them to not only surrender but give it multiple viewings to unpack it more each outing.  One of the items that may have cleared up some of its issues is Norton casting another actor in the lead role and leave him to unreservedly polish and smooth the film out.  It could have even kept many of its vocal detractors at bay.

Is this something you should seek out, which is what film reviews are supposed to be about? If you want to give it your time and energy, in the sense of truly placing your efforts in trying to figure out this secret, that Edward Norton seems to know about art and the world; that would allow an opportunity for the film to speak.  With its taut, technical merits (and even flaws), it has wholly created a vivid curiosity and eagerness for Norton to jump into a director’s chair much sooner than later.  The gap was long between “Keeping the Faith” and “Motherless Brooklyn.” Keep indulging that curiosity, Mr. Norton.  We’re open to listening.

“Motherless Brooklyn” is distributed by Warner Bros. and opens in theaters on Nov. 1.

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