“When I grew up in Brooklyn no one committed suicide. Everyone was too unhappy” Woody Allen would famously joke. It’s a joke that applies to the dreary “Motherless Brooklyn,” though Woody forgot about one thing: murder. That’s the way most people go out in Edward Nortons’ latest. A neo-noir set in 1957, the writer/director/producer has crammed as many cool-talking gumshoes and two-bit scumbags he can into an already overpopulated Brooks. And the result? An overstuffed epic with grand ambitions, superb performances and enough subplots to drive Woody’s compulsive decluttering disorder into a state of disarray.
Part of the problem might be the time it took to get this made. For 20 years Norton has been working on the script, which he started after reading Jonathan Lethem’s beloved novel (of the same name) in 97′. What’s new here is the time it takes place. Instead of setting it in the ’90s, the events here occur 40 years earlier, when trench coats and voice-overs were all the rage. In keeping the faith with his last film, “Keeping the Faith,” Norton gets a bunch of his pals together to profess their love for New York. While working with your friends is always fun, it’s your best friends who tell you when you have food stuck in your teeth, or when your movie is 30 minutes too long. Norton needs to start working with his best friends.
Bruce Willis stars as Frank Minna. He’s P.I., and there’s more under the brim of his fedora than you might initially expect. After a deal gone wrong, Minna is whacked, leaving a trail of bread crumbs for his friend Lionel (Norton) to follow. The crumbs lead to an authoritarian mug (Alec Baldwin playing Robert Moses) who refers to gentrification in terms of pest control; a femme fatal (Gugu Mbatha Raw, lovely) who leads the rallies against that “slum clearing;” a bystander who knows too much (William Defoe, underused); and a bunch of baddies who hide in the shadows trying to kill him.
All of these characters probably sound like Raymond Chandler knockoffs, and they kinda are. But Lionel is an original. His Tourette outbursts are nothing like the usual smooth-talking detectives seen on screen. “Tits on a Tuesday!” he stutters. The problem with Lionel as a hero is that he speaks his mind. Without moral ambiguity, as seen in similar-minded mysteries like “The Big Sleep” or “The Sweet Smell of Success,” all suspense is thrown out the window. Nortons’ biggest problem is that he is too nice. The period details are stylish–Plymouth’s zipping through the smoky streets, cigarette smoke getting lost in the grey skies– yet the setting isn’t dark enough.
That isn’t to say it isn’t depressing, just that the balance between mystery and the obvious goes out of whack–Lionel doesn’t know that Baldwin’s Moses is the corporate overlord that he is, but we do since all the bad guys are painfully obvious to spot.
It’s clear that this tale of civic corruption wanted to be the East’s “Chinatown.” With its jazzy score, city conspiracies and the uncertainty of the femme fetale’s father, the only thing that’s missing is the actual grit. New York movies are either witty (Allen) or gritty (Scorsese). “Motherless Brooklyn” wants to be both without being either.