Here’s the big question when it comes to Edward Norton’s adaptation of Jonathan Letham’s Motherless Brooklyn: When your big-budget prestige picture (and, if you’re Norton, your career-long passion project) is likely to bore the living shit out of viewers unfamiliar with the source material and is equally likely to infuriate those who are big fans of of Letham’s classic, who the hell is it for, exactly? The answer, it seems, is that it was made for Norton’s benefit alone. He, much like Tim Robbins a few decades back, wants to grapple with Issues Of The Age in a self-serving fashion, spotlighting his work as a Tourette’s-suffering detective in ’50s NYC, who stumbles upon a grand conspiracy in the process of trying to solve the murder of his friend Frank (Bruce Willis).
I’m not as familiar with Letham’s work as I wish I was, but honestly, you don’t really need to be in this case. I’ve been told by friends who have read the book that it’s essentially a betrayal of the source material, from its hagiographic portrayal of Frank to its total abandonment of the book’s central mystery to Norton’s half-hearted insertion of a Robert Moses-like Alec Baldwin as the film’s heavy, and, with some casual research, you can see that they’re right. This is one adaptation that you can’t imagine the studio shelling out the cash to publish a tie-in edition of the novel, one with the actors’ faces slapped all over it, as it’d be a deliberate misrepresentation of the work beneath the cover, though it might draw eyes amongst the curious to see just how wrong Norton gets things in his approach.
What I can tell you, as someone blessed with clear eyes unclouded with bias (at least in this case), that Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn is genuinely uninteresting, and whenever the director hogs the screen, doing his weird Woody Allen-flavored take on Tourette’s, the movie gets exponentially worse. When not rolling through the same two or three jokes about his condition, the once-beloved actor is bland and uninteresting, with most of his character’s motivations and cares revealed to us by an uninteresting and empty voice-over. This gimmicky performance is a shameless ploy for awards-body eyes, convinced that being the most actory-actor will result in Norton being honored by at least the Golden Globes, and even surrounding him with some fantastic actors (Willem Dafoe, Michael K. Williams, Bobby Canavale, Gugu Mbatha-Raw) can’t bring the performance to life.
There’s a blatant artificiality to everything on screen, from its flaccid plot to its empty and unexciting imagery, and the real-world issues that Norton wants to delve into — gentrification, redlining, and the government-supported erasure of minority cultures from the very cities that they made great to begin with — are rendered abstract and pointless by his careless hand. You’d be astonished to learn this, but it turns out that even having an original Thom Yorke song on your soundtrack won’t save your movie from pointlessness, especially when it’s as fittingly bland to suit an equally vapid film. Motherless Brooklyn might not be the worst movie at this year’s festival, as Guns Akimbo still somehow found itself with a prestige spot on the back-half of the 2019 line-up, but it’s one of the most baffling.