New crime drama ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ sees Edward Norton return to the big screen in a leading role for the first time in several years. He’s also responsible for adapting the 1999 Jonathan Lethem novel of the same name that it’s based on for the screen, as well as directing the film. He stars as Lionel Essrog, a private investigator who embarks on a case after a meeting he’s shadowing for one of his fellow investigators goes wrong.
The film takes place in 1950s New York, and this is unmistakable thanks to the effective production design. However, the storytelling never matches the quality of this overall presentation. Unfortunately the main mystery of the film just isn’t particularly intriguing, this could be down to the fact that it’s hard to really care about any of the characters. Coupled with these issues is the troubling running time, coming in at almost two and a half hours ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ is self indulgently long, never earning this length of screen time. The score for the film, composed by the brilliant Daniel Pemberton is musically sound but the constant beats of slow jazz only slow the pace of the film even more so and the effects of this across the whole film risk a severe wave of drowsiness washing over audiences.
Edward Norton has delivered some stunning leading turns in the past and he most definitely showcases his abilities here once more. The character he plays, Lionel has Tourette’s syndrome, and whilst there are undoubtedly more informed individuals to critique his performance than myself, Norton is convincing. Although, what is less convincing is the clearly, very placed inclusion of this aspect of Lionel’s character throughout the film. When Norton is centre stage this is very much a part of his performance but when he fades into the background of scenes so does his Tourette’s syndrome. Of course this makes sense when he’s indulging in the remedies which he explains help to keep it under control but more often than not this is an issue in moments other than these. This feels like an uneven and careless portrayal of a character from a very underrepresented group of people, not usually depicted on screen. Potentially a performer who has Tourette’s syndrome in real life may have proved more authentic for the picture despite Norton’s obvious talent which he demonstrates throughout.
Otherwise, the cast is a really mixed bag. The less said about the unconvincing performances from Bruce Willis and Leslie Mann the better. More positively though we have Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Cherry Jones and Bobby Cannavale doing great character work throughout the film. The constant strength to their performances helps the film through its weakest moments but they never feature heavily enough to make it a picture worth recommending.
Ultimately, ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ misfires on several cylinders. It opts to tell a dull and unengaging story amongst a film full of other potentially rich and interesting ones. The portrayal of Lionel’s Tourette’s syndrome isn’t conveyed with enough attention to detail to call it a success, despite Norton’s strong performance whilst in the spotlight. However, it is a step in the right direction to feature a character like Lionel as a main protagonist, but those it tries to represent deserve better. It’s a shame that this crime drama’s biggest offense though is that of inflicting boredom on its audience, failing to fill its bloated running time with enough substance or suspense to sustain the attention of its viewers.
Written by Hamish Calvert
STAR RATING –★★
Question: What is your favourite Edward Norton film performance?
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Thanks to Movie House Cinemas for screening access