Friday, October 11, 2019

NYFF Spotlight: Motherless Brooklyn

I managed to catch two selections at this year’s 57th Annual New York Film Festival. Here’s the first.

Motherless Brooklyn
Directed by Edward Norton
Closing Night Selection

There is something distinctive about old-fashioned mysteries, capers involving shadowy villains and conflicted protagonists whose motivations to take them down may be less than entirely noble. Police officers, detectives, or private investigators are typically led down a rabbit hole as they follow the leads – and the leading lady – to a place where they are forced to decide whether to do the right thing or to serve their own best interests. There are variations, of course, and the strength of the characters and the storyline can make or break the experience of traveling this journey.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Willem Dafoe, and Edward Norton discuss the film

Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) is a private investigator in 1950s New York City who works with Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). When he realizes that Frank is in over his head on a mysterious assignment, Lionel, who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome, must attempt to put together the pieces and determine what connects an ambitious aide (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) fighting discrimination in the city, a disturbed protestor (Willem Dafoe), and a powerful real estate mogul (Alec Baldwin). The undiagnosed condition he has often causes disruptive outbursts, but it also allows him to focus intently on the details and see things no one else can, setting him up as the only one capable of cracking this case.

Edward Norton discusses the film

This film is adapted from a 1999 novel of the same name by Jonathan Lethem, which preserves its protagonist’s defining characteristics but takes considerable other liberties, primarily in setting its story in the 1950s, which Norton cites as a classic time period which enhances the feeling of the film. The costumes, set direction, and moody score by Daniel Pemberton certainly do their part in grounding the audience experience in this mystery, which also feels clunky and expected. Running nearly two and a half hours, this film often explores themes and styles for just a moment before cutting away to an entirely different aesthetic, indicating great potential but a muddled result.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Willem Dafoe discuss the film

Norton is an undeniably terrific (and often underrated) actor, and there’s no denying that he applies himself here in addition to serving as producer, writer, and director. Yet this performance doesn’t feel nearly as transformative or three-dimensional, akin to the surrounding story, which travels a predictable path without discovering anything new along the way. Willis is fun, Mbatha-Raw and Dafoe are good as always, and it’s hard to hear Baldwin speak without picturing Donald Trump, though the comparison is apt in many ways here. The crowded ensemble also includes Bobby Cannavale, Leslie Mann, Michael K. Williams, and Cherry Jones, yet another instance of certifiable talent present and put to only moderate effect. There’s simply nothing extraordinary about this film which could have been great.


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