You can’t help but root for Motherless Brooklyn, that rare modern-day adult-drama movie released by a major American studio. A two-and-a-half-hour long homage to noirs featuring nary an explosion in sight? It’s a welcome surprise to see a studio like Warner Bros. financing and releasing this type of title. Unfortunately, noble artistic ambitions can’t actually make Motherless Brooklyn a good movie. On the contrary, this is a shockingly disposable feature film with only brief glimmers of actual entertainment or quality to be found. Despite having spent two decades in development, Motherless Brooklyn is still a movie that could have used a whole lot more work.
Since Motherless Brooklyn is a neo-noir, we need some kind of detective to be the protagonist. Such a lead character emerges in the form of Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton), a guy who lives with Tourette’s Syndrome and OCD as he works for Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Essrog is loyal to the end to Minna but unfortunately, his boss ends up getting shanghaied by a bunch of goons with powerful connections. Who were these guys, what did they want with Minna? Essrog begins to do some digging around his home of Brooklyn and uncovers a shocking conspiracy centered around the unbelievable twist that rich white male politicians in the 1950’s tended to be morally corrupt people who didn’t have the best interests of racial minorities in mind.
Much like George Clooney’s The Ides of March, Motherless Brooklyn’s social commentary is perfect for people who have been living under a rock and comically simple drivel for everybody else. Norton’s screenplay (adapted from a novel of the same name by Jonathan Lethem) references all kinds of big political talking points, including having Alec Baldwin’s villain deliver two lines directly referencing Donald Trump, but there’s no thoughtful exploration of such talking points to be found. Motherless Brooklyn never goes deeper than references and that leaves its overall plot woefully short of actual depth. Its sociopolitical elements are about as boring as its characters.
That’s the biggest issue with Motherless Brooklyn, its tedious nature. One can easily forgive a movie for not being super original in its approach to real-world issues if the feature in question is interesting to watch. Alas, Motherless Brooklyn just drones on and on with both its story and the majority of its acting refraining from emanating any sense of distinct personality or entertainment. Whether intentional or not, Motherless Brooklyn keeps giving off the impression that it’s straining super hard to be a “serious” movie, which is a pity because the genre it’s homaging (noirs) were frequently experts in merging crackerjack entertainment with superb filmmaking and even thoughtful social commentary.
Motherless Brooklyn has got the narration and shadow-heavy cinematography of classic noirs down pat, but the movie has yet to master the quality and engrossing nature of films like The Big Heat. Well, most of the movie anyhow. Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s performance has actually gotten those two traits down pat, she delivers a turn in this movie that’s the only ray of delightfulness in the whole project. Emerging on-screen with a dynamite personality, a rapid-fire speaking style that would make Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday proud and a screen presence that constantly keeps you captivated. Mbatha-Raw seems to have come from a wholly different movie entirely, one that isn’t afraid to actually be enjoyable to watch. So much of Motherless Brooklyn is forgettable but Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the one massive exception, she’s excellent here.
The rest of the cast is given shamefully little to do, the likes of Bobby Cannavale and Michael K. Williams mostly just stand on the sidelines waiting for the script to give them anything interesting to do. Edward Norton’s work in the lead role is similarly underwhelming. Though he’s saddled with all kinds of unique behavior traits in this part, Norton never makes Essrog a fully-formed character, he’s someone who mostly just comes across as a weak Sam Spade wannabe or a collection of “quirks”. Norton’s penchant for punctuating parts of Essrog’s Tourette’s for comedic purposes also proves to be uncomfortable rather than humorous. Norton’s direction isn’t much better. Despite frequently referencing all the visual flourishes of classic film noirs as well as cinematographer Dick Pope by his side, Motherless Brooklyn lacks imagination in how scenes are filmed. So much it is just so stale-looking and compounds the dreary nature of the proceedings. It’s truly disappointing to write that given how much talent has been assembled for a project that’s an anomaly in the realm of high-profile 2019 American cinema. It’s easy to admire the intent of Motherless Brooklyn, but aside from Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s performance, the film itself is tragically forgettable.