I doubt you could really get Chinatown made today. It’s a dense, bleak noir about corruption and American power. The closest you could probably get is Edward Norton’s new movie, Motherless Brooklyn, which lacks the style and competency of the 1974 classic but retains its ambition. Motherless Brooklyn, Norton’s first directorial effort since his 2000 rom-com Keeping the Faith, is clearly a labor of love. It’s an unusual, atypical project that doesn’t check any studio boxes, and it’s not like audiences are chomping at the bit to see a 50s-set noir featuring a protagonist with Tourette’s syndrome. But Norton somehow got it made, and while it’s not terrible, the difficulty of the story required more money and more experience than its writer-director-star could provide.
Set in 1950s New York City, Lionel Essrog (Norton) works at a private detective agency. He suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, both of which he self-medicates by using narcotics. However, he’s a big help to his boss, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) since Lionel also has a photographic memory. When Frank is killed during an investigation, Lionel takes it upon himself to discover why his boss was murdered. He eventually learns that Frank was on the trail of a major corruption case revolving around builder Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), but Lionel’s investigation could also end up endangering social activist Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a woman he’s developing feelings for.
I really like the idea of Motherless Brooklyn. There’s nothing wrong with creating dense noir about government corruption (although it’s certainly not ideal to see this movie at 9:15 at night on the sixth day of a film festival like I did). Furthermore, gentrification is a timely topic. Randolph is using eminent domain to force poor people and minorities out of their homes so he can build highways or bridges or something else that helps affluent white people. The story of a corrupt system working against the people is an important one worth telling, but Norton isn’t the right person to tell it.
Although this is Norton’s second picture, it’s his second picture in almost twenty years, and I wish that in that time, in addition to his acting work, he had taken a little more time to hone his craft as a director. That doesn’t mean studios films or nothing. We’re in an era of peak TV, and even just working on TV shows to try out different things or stretch the creative muscles would have probably been a huge benefit to Norton because he’s just not ready for a project of this size. Granted, he’s making this movie on what appears to be a shoestring budget (asking a studio to recreate 1950s New York City isn’t cheap, so Motherless Brooklyn reuses a lot of locations, which keeps the action feeling small and repetitive). Keeping Lionel in the same places drains the movie of momentum it sorely needs as Norton struggles to find a rhythm to the narrative.
A noir like this requires its audience to pay full attention since you’re dealing with a big cast and lots of information, but Norton can’t keep it straight for his audience. Motherless Brooklyn isn’t confusing, but it can be listless, spending too much time on one scene while failing to establish what’s happening in another. Norton certainly didn’t need to hold his audience’s hand, but Lionel’s investigation can be so obtuse at times that the film can’t find a pulse. It’s clear that Motherless Brooklyn isn’t an easy adaptation, but I doubt this is the best version of the story that could have been put on screen.
Norton has more success in his performance as Lionel. What could have devolved into a series of tics and self-conscious choices instead feels like a real person and a fitting protagonist for the noir genre. If a noir like this is all about communication and information, then Lionel, with his difficulty communicating and his ability to retain all information, fits well into the story. He doesn’t feel like he has Tourette’s because the story needs a hook, nor is he solely defined by his neurological disorder. If Lionel ever feels like he’s a bit too much, it’s not because of the performance but because of the film’s pacing that lacks urgency.
I don’t hate Motherless Brooklyn, and I think in the hands of a more capable director with a studio giving him or her the budget he or she needed, the film could have been something special. Instead, the movie is more of a finish line for Norton, a project he labored on for years and now he can says it’s done. I suppose you could categorize it as a “vanity project”, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a director caring deeply about the material and working hard to bring it to the screen no matter. I just wish Norton had the skill to make it come alive.
Motherless Brooklyn opens November 1st.