Legendary Hollywood mogul Robert Evans died this week at 89. Among the classic movies made under his auspices were “The Godfather,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Love Story,” and “Chinatown.” The last of those was a moody film noir starring Jack Nicholson as a private eye in the 1930s who got involved in a complicated story about water rights and incest in Los Angeles.
I mention it because “Chinatown” is an obvious ancestor of “Motherless Brooklyn,” written and directed by Edward Norton, who stars as Lionel, a gumshoe in the 1950s who gets involved in a complicated story about land development and family ties in New York. It would be wrong for me to tell you much more about the mysteries that unravel over the course of the movie, but something has to be said about Norton’s character and directorial style.
Lionel has Tourette’s syndrome, which causes him to unexpectedly blurt inappropriate things, then apologize and explain he’s not doing it on purpose. That’s the way the character was written in the Jonathan Lethem novel on which the film is based (in order to make him more sympathetic?), but on screen, unfortunately, it serves as a distraction. When I saw “Motherless Brooklyn” in a full theater, the audience laughed every time Lionel cursed or rhymed or something similar — but giggles and film noir are not a good mix.
We’ve seen Norton play characters with tics before. His very first screen role in “Primal Fear” (1996, with Richard Gere) got everyone’s attention as he played an accused murderer with two seemingly opposite personalities. Five years later, he pulled off a similar con as a thief who pretended to be a mentally handicapped janitor in “The Score” (2001, with Robert DeNiro and Marlon Brando). Both of those were extraordinary performances, but this time, the way he plays the Tourette’s angle just seems like Norton pulling something out of the same bag tricks.
Another thing this movie didn’t need is a long jazz performance interlude in the middle, padding that helps bloat the run time to 144 minutes — easily 30 minutes longer than it needed to be. As with others who direct from their own script, Norton couldn’t make himself cut it down, a problem he also had with his directorial debut, “Keeping The Faith” (2000). Like that one, the pace of “Motherless Brooklyn” drags, which is not what you want with an already moody mystery. He also included at least a half-dozen cutaway shots that were oddly out of place and two supposed plot twists that were no surprise at all.
Norton did line up a killer supporting cast, including Bruce Willis, Bobby Cannavale, Willem Dafoe, Cherry Jones, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who has been building quite an IMDb profile with her roles in recent years. However, the casting of Alec Baldwin as Moses Randolph was problematic. He’s based on the real-life Robert Moses, who gave New York and Long Island lots of bridges and roadways and parks and beaches, but was such a bigot that he made sure the overpasses on the highways headed to those recreation spots were too low for city busses to pass under, thus keeping away the Hispanics and African-Americans he hated. Like that historical figure, Randolph is a racist, narcissistic, authoritarian power broker — and it’s impossible to watch Baldwin playing someone like that without thinking of his Trump imitation on “Saturday Night Live.” The movie would have been better served if Willis and Baldwin had swapped roles.
I don’t think “Motherless Brooklyn” is going to draw much of a crowd at the box office. In fact, I think any film noir would meet the same fate today — including “Chinatown,” despite being one of the all-time great American movies. It was made in a very different theatrical environment in 1974 that included similarly deep-welled movies as “The Conversation,” “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” and “Dog Day Afternoon,” all of which I fear would struggle to even get made in 2019, because modern moviegoers have become so accustomed to entertainment that’s more fast-paced and less dense.
Regardless, “Motherless Brooklyn” isn’t nearly up to the quality of its cinematic ancestor. I give it a half-hearted recommendation: 5 out of 10. I’d suggest you go rent any of the movies in the previous paragraph instead.