Handsomely made adaptation of unique gumshoe novel proves to be a talk heavy affair.
Achieving a kind of clumsy elegance, at times, “Motherless Brooklyn” sadly devolves into reams of exposition. It’s a film that has a hard time with the visual language of cinema. Writer/director Edward Norton, whose last effort behind the camera was 2000’s entertaining and thoughtful “Keeping the Faith,” has all the tools and resources in place here. But instead of showing us the pieces of the mystery, he tells it to us in an exhausting fashion.
Norton plays Lionel Essrog, the right-hand man to an edgy private detective named Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Lionel has Tourette’s, a disorder that makes it hard for him to control what he says and causes him to manifest physical tics. It’s the early 1950s in New York City, a time when infrastructure growth came at the expense of minority neighborhoods. And Frank’s latest investigation raises the attention of some of the City’s most prominent players, running afoul of Borough Authority led by the mysterious Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin). When Frank gets killed, Lionel, in hopes of finding out who did it, picks up where his boss left off.
What starts like something from the pen of Tom Wolfe decays into a leaden narrative that will try viewer patience. The period setting shouldn’t feel as dated and stale as it does. But the story of racial division that is universal and continues today is handled in a broad manner that drains it of its impact. Lionel is an exciting personality to take on the detective profession, but his techniques are almost nonexistent. If he is gifted in some way, we never see it.
In one frustrating sequence, he sits with another character (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) on a bed and recaps everything we’ve already learned up to that point. Not only is there zero sexual tension, but it reflects poorly on his skills as an investigator. The concluding act gives us nothing shocking; rather, just more talk. And the always watchable Alec Baldwin is forced to deliver one of the most laughably awkward lines of any film this year. Okay, Baldwin’s riff gets a laugh, but if the chuckle is intended, it is such an abrupt change in tone, that I winced.
Norton’s adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel and resets the time period. It’s apparent that he desperately wanted to make a film noir throwback. But where great films like “The Maltese Falcon,” “Le Samouraï,” or “Chinatown” worked best was in allowing the viewers to figure out the mystery for themselves. In an excellent example of the genre, we become a part of the investigation; we get a piece of the action. And the joy for us is figuring out most of the story, while the nagging pieces remain mercurial.
“Motherless Brooklyn” treats the viewer as a passive participant. Norton fails to pick up on what worked in the detective films of the 1940s and 1950s. Instead of giving those familiar keys a turn like say, Robert Altman did in “The Long Goodbye,” Norton instead delivers an essay that explicitly leave nothing to the imagination. It’s a bland film that, at one point, ceases to be cinematic.