Jason Arment reviews the film Motherless Brooklyn, written (screenplay adaptation), produced, directed by and starring Edward Norton. (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Edward Norton occupies a very specific place in audiences’ minds; Fight Club was two decades before Motherless Brooklyn’s release in late 2019 and Edward Norton has played a number of roles since, some of them more serious than others. This mix of strangely playful and deadly serious is reflected in Motherless Brooklyn. From printed word to the silver screen adaptation, of which Edward Norton is responsible for, I have no way of knowing what has been altered. I’m at a disadvantage, having never read the book—where should I levy my criticisms? Probably Edward Norton, as his adaptation could have been easily tweaked if he did indeed follow the source material too carefully.
Edward Norton’s character, Lionel Essrog, has Tourette Syndrome that afflicts him a great deal at the start of the movie, but nearly disappears by the time the curtains close. Attempting to fill the silent, contemplative spaces noir detective films don’t bear as best they can, but instead foster the idea that the glacial-paced narrative is building to a definitive conclusion.
(Motherless Brooklyn movie poster; Warner Bros. Pictures)
The pace of a detective/noir film is essential if the action and suspense of the rising action can blossom into climax. To ape the genre isn’t a bad thing, especially when Edward Norton is bringing a lot that’s new. I enjoyed the gambits and how they translated from the page to the screen. Because when one writes a script, they are indeed a writer going about writer’s work: ideas, pacing, voice, tone, metaphors, and their vehicles—how a page translates to a set to be filmed for the screen.
To his credit, Edward Norton does a good job. But Motherless Brooklyn leans heavily on Edward Norton and Alec Baldwin’s performances. Luckily, supporting actors like Gugu Mbatha-Raw are there to elevate the story, so the end is much more satisfying than the beginning. Wobbly legs aren’t as much of a problem as the seams between traditional noir genre and humor, emotion, and nuances that Edward Norton brings to the screen.
I’m far from a genre purist, so I’ve got no problem with something being made to be more fun without losing the plot. But at the start of the film, there wasn’t enough of Bruce Willis to make me want him to survive, and really feel his demise. As the film is structured, with so much focus on Edward Norton yelping silly words and phrases, the slaying of the Die Hard star fits more into a Batman film’s slaughter of the Wayne parents, who have become nothing more than NPCs who wander the wasters of modern cinema—NPCs are Non Player Characters used to populate video game worlds, and usually have no character development or depth, and scant few dialogue options. The family is dressed too fancy for a night at a movie theater and, for whatever reason, big-shot Mr. Wayne is walking blithely down a back alley without a bodyguard in sight; the death scene of Mr. and Mrs. Wayne doesn’t make audiences flinch like it used to, but instead is taken for granted.
Motherless Brooklyn leans heavily on Edward Norton and Alec Baldwin’s performances. Luckily, supporting actors like Gugu Mbatha-Raw are there to elevate the story, so the end is much more satisfying than the beginning.
The issue with Tourette Syndrome is that it’s used to fill voids in the script that aren’t there. It would have been a shot in the arm for a film badly needing a more immediate feeling of concrete realness at the outset. Listening to the banter between two stooges about the “strings in my head,” which Edward Norton references in various ways throughout the film, doesn’t do anything. It’s there for a second; then it’s gone, a magician’s handkerchief flourish.
Tourette Syndrome is used in a low-brow way for humor, and a high-brow way to deliver existential thoughts that are so loosely arranged on the page, and in the thoughts that put them there; Edward Norton drifts to sleep in a dark swimming pool of the mind, a place commonly misattributed to shows such as Stranger Things.
If the film had been tighter, the narrative would have been much nimbler in the universe that exists solely to support the story. It’s not like Edward Norton was walking up to a literal plate with a stick to go to bat, because in baseball the batters control very little, even the agency over themselves is violated: by old injuries, nagging anxiety, guilt at lost opportunities, the noise and screams of encouragement and taunting defamation from the crowd in the stands. Edward Norton stepped into an arena not by himself, but with friends—scores of writers, actors, and other artisans who participate in the same craft. Edward Norton has access to some of the greats, titans of our generation. Thus, the standard is set very high.
The divisions in society present in the film, although perpetuated by the rich, are not partaken of by them. The rich see the poor and disabled as tools, utilitarian in nature. Whether or not they stutter or swear, scream or seize, it’s fine as long as they have an avenue to obsequiousness; the eccentrics are tolerated, and hardline prejudice isn’t present, not even on the street. It seemed the hatred of the crowd only revolted against the rich when they refused to go through the minor formality of introducing themselves at a townhall style meeting. There were other beats that, if not missed, would have undoubtedly bolstered the film at its weakest.
Motherless Brooklyn was good, but not great. The acting is uneven, and the tropes applied haphazardly—there is a voice-over, Tourette Syndrome screaming, internal dialogue, all jammed into a film with bombastic characters. The characters have heart, though, something that’s hard to fake. Hopefully, this isn’t the last entry we see from Edward Norton, and Edward Norton allows others to lift him up on wings of genius.