Motherless Brooklyn (2019)

Motherless Brooklyn
Director: Edward Norton
Writer: Edward Norton
Based on: Jonathan Lethem’s novel
Cast: Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Willem Dafoe, Robert Wisdom, Michael Kenneth Williams, Bruce Willis, Ethan Suplee, Cherry Jones, Dallas Roberts, Josh Pais, Leslie Mann
Seen on: 18.12.2019

Lionel (Edward Norton) is a private investigator, even though his Tourette’s can make covert observation a little difficult sometimes. He works for Frank (Bruce Willis) until Frank is killed. Lionel really needs to figure out what case he worked on that turned out to be deadly. Retracing Frank’s steps, picking up where he left off, Lionel finds himself investigating some very powerful people and making a connection with Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who is somehow involved.

Motherless Brooklyn has been a long time coming, but sometimes things are not worth the wait. It’s not an outright bad film, but it’s not very good, either.

The film poster showing a man in a trenchcoat and hat on a bridge.

When an adaptation of Motherless Brooklyn helmed by Edward Norton was first announced, it was at the time where my Norton-appreciation was at an all-time high. So, I was very excited. I got myself the novel, even though I’m not that much into detective fiction. I read and liked it more than ten years ago (and it was not immediately after the announcement) and then nothing – until the film suddenly dropped this fall without much announcement. Anyway, what I’m trying to say that I probably first heard about an adaption of the novel somewhere between 15 and 20 years ago, so it has really taken them a long time to get there. And it’s obviously a passion project. But I don’t know if it was really worth fighting so hard for the film to be made.

I mean, there are many worse films out there, that’s for sure. And although the film does have a few lengths, especially in the second half, it’s mostly decent. The cast is great, there’s no doubt about that, especially Mbatha-Raw and Norton himself (although it would have been absolutely fantastic and the decent thing to do if they had actually cast somebody with Tourette’s for the role).

Edward Norton and Willem Dafoe in the film

But apart from the Tourette’s angle – which does feel a bit like a gimmick, albeit a well-researched one – the movie is just one of many hard-boiled detective stories that exist already. It didn’t feel like it contributed anything new. And that feeling didn’t come from the fact that I read the book because I can barely remember anything about it, I have to admit. I couldn’t even recall that it wasn’t set in the 50s like the film or that Laura is a character who is new in the film. I just read up on that.

And the racial politics of it left me vaguely uncomfortable. On the one hand, gentrification is a persisting issue and one that predominately hits marginalized communities like people of color, so it was great that this was part of the storyline. On the other hand, what it boils down to is a white man basically saving black people, while the black characters in the film play mostly minor roles with very little agency. I’m not sure if that’s all there was to it that made me so uncomfortable, but that’s definitely part of it.

In the end, I left the cinema with a shrug and more of a feeling of “well, now that’s over” than satisfaction or contentment at having finally seen it. But it was definitely nice to see Edward Norton again in a bigger role. It feels like it’s been a while.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Edward Norton in the film.

Summarizing: I wouldn’t recommend rushing to the cinema for it, but if you happen to stumble over it, it’s an okay watch.

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