Taking the stage at the Princess of Wales Theater, writer-director Edward Norton introduced his sophomore feature behind the camera, Motherless Brooklyn, as an underdog story. The underdog in question is Lionel Essrog (Norton), the central character of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel of the same name. By the time the nearly two-and-a-half-hour-long film comes to a close, he’ll face off against club-wielding goons, mountainous political figures, and staggeringly corrupt social systems. But while watching this picture, a sickly and untimely truth is uncovered that the obstacle most plaguing to Lionel’s causes, the thing that really makes him Norton’s underdog, is his own mind.
Set in 1950s New York City, Motherless Brooklyn’s comedic exploitation of mental health – the leading man suffers from both Tourette’s Syndrome and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder – comes off more as ironic than amusing amongst Norton’s bucketing tie-ins to the current political climate. But based on the assembly and population of those links alone, the film will surely attract at least a portion of partisan-charged viewers, though it will more than likely try the patience of a general audience.
Making his screenwriting debut, the Fight Club star jettisons almost every aspect of his source material, most notably shifting the time period forty years back from the ‘90s when it had originally taken place. With that said, both works start out the same way: with a busted stakeout ending the life of Lionel’s mentor and fellow private dick, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis).
As the New Yorker attempts to piece together the frustratingly incomprehensive and under-wrapped details of Minna’s final investigation, the tyrannically racist objectives of Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin playing a Norton-original, probably SNL-inspired character) are injected into the caper. And soon enough, Lionel finds himself working alongside activist Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) to discover the link between Minna’s murder and Randolph’s segregating real estate projects.
These deviations from Lethem’s novel quickly shift the attention towards a game of connect the sociopolitical dots (many viewers will be pleased to project Randolph as the spitting image of ‘50s Trump), which just as swiftly muddles the plot. Norton looms over the politician’s agenda, whose urban development plans target the displacement of black people from their Brooklyn homes, and just like Lionel, who feels like his “freakshow” brain gets in the way of everything, should feel, we in the audience feel as if we’ve been tossed into something beyond conceivable accomplishment.
With that said, Motherless Brooklyn does have a passion about it. Norton revealed that he’s been trying to adapt the material since American History X 21 years ago. That stick-to-it-ness is admirable, especially since the project appeared to have gone through production hell before finally reaching the big screen – including a fire that broke out below the set that caused the death of a Harlem firefighter. But two typical characteristics of passion projects run rampant here: first, Norton’s inspirations, most notably Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential, leak far too often into his film; and second, the picture can’t help but feel like a narcissistic turn for the writer-director-producer-star, who clearly wants to take the Rain Man path to Oscar glory.
But in the end, vexation and fatigue will ultimately prevail over any chance of awards contention or political insight Norton implores. And it’s an especially disappointing film given the wealth of talent on call here – which also includes Willem Dafoe as the truther equivalent of Donald Sutherland’s X from JFK – but between the backup performances that come off as little more than dress up, futile attempts at comedy, and the 150-minute runtime that feels more like eight hours, Motherless Brooklyn proves to be a film best left on the page.
Edward Norton mines political relevance in some areas of noir-drenched New York and completely ignores it in others. As a result, Motherless Brooklyn becomes Chinatown’s outshined, ugly stepbrother.