3 out of 5
Directed by: Edward Norton
Chinatown. Provided you’ve seen the film, that will be a constantly niggling reference point throughout Edward Norton’s kinda adaptation of Motherless Brooklyn, and if you haven’t seen it, be prepared for any given review to mention it once or twice.
It’s rather unavoidable: a period flick; a twisty turny seemingly low key plot that twists and turns its way TO THE TOP to The Powers That Be, who’re inevitably trying to be more powerful; a talky script, with flavored, of-the-era dialogue… However, Motherless Brooklyn isn’t Chinatown, and that will also stick out. Norton kept a thin scrap from the book – a detective with tourettes, detecting in late 90s Brooklyn – and used the jumping off point of said detective’s boss being shot to lead into a story of crooked politicians and land scams, moving the setting to the 1950s and stuffing his flick with tons of recognizable faces. Perhaps it’s the moderate budget, though (26 million), but it never really feels like the 50s, and those recognizable faces often just feel like they’re trying on the canned dialogue for fun. Which reminded me of Brick in that sense, but lacking the purposeful awareness of its own artifice… meaning that you’re just never immersed in what Norton’s trying to sell. The crisp, cool cinematography from Dick Pope only adds to this – it’s not lived in; it’s too pretty – as does Norton’s rather blasé shooting style, which affects mannerisms during key points that never quite seem organic to the film’s relatively laid back pacing, and then otherwise just sits back and watches without investment, just get the shot and move on.
The surface of this gets in the way of what – during its 2+ hour runtime – is often a quite enjoyable bit of drama, stuffed with playlike patter that’s wielded with just enough mirth to keep the tone light, while dealing with some relatively heavy (and complex) stuff. That said, after bouncing between mystery red herrings, it becomes clear that we need Norton on screen to really carry this, as the majority of the rest of the players (Bruce Willis, Willem Defoe, Alec Baldwin) are rather one-note, plot-point types, which would all work better without that layer of remove. Gugu Mbatha-Raw gets a fleshed out role, and she’s magnificent in her scenes, and playing off of Norton, and when we get into the chunk of story in which she’s more heavily involved, the film truly starts to click.
I do note that I watched this at home, during which I was able to pause and return on my own time. The runtime, and the lack of immersion, might’ve been a difficult sell in a theather, but despite all my grousing, I do wish we’d see more talky, over-stuffed dramas like this more often, as they just can’t be summarized or boiled down to a one line elevator pitch, and that feels rather fresh nowadays, even if it’s an old style. Even if it ain’t Chinatown.