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David Poland

By David Poland

Review: Motherless Brooklyn (spoiler-free)

Motherless Brooklyn is perfect.

This is both a virtue and limitation.

My sense of the film is that it is in the spirit of Chinatown and The Man Who Knew Too Much and even a movie like Phantom Thread. It is an innocent’s (or a relative innocent’s) dive into a is well-established world that is unknown to “the straight world,” a world of power and human disposability and ugly truths.

The big twist in this story is that the eventual hero is Tourettic, which complicates his ability to be inexpressive or to lie effectively when need be. Interesting, huh? Yeah.

This has been a passion project for over a decade for Edward Norton. He eventually got enough money… but not really enough. His friends and colleagues showed and worked for minimal amounts. He had a writer-director-producer-star in himself.

And truly, what he pulls off is remarkable. He shot New York City as a period piece and found quite special locations, interior and exterior, to frame his story. The cleanness of this movie cannot be overstated as an incredible challenge. It looks like a much more expensive film than it is.

But for me, it is all just too perfect. This is a story we have seen, generally, but it feels like it desperately wants some kink. And not just period dialogue and a hero that swings between the artistic black community and the wealthy whites.

The kink that is missing is in the lead role. It’s not that Norton isn’t good. He’s never less than very, very good. But he’s not wildly unpredictable as he often has been. He does the Tourette’s well, but it misses danger and subtext. And I imagine this was a result of having so many jobs on the film.

My insta-casting would be Joaquin Phoenix, and he would be great. But it doesn’t need a Joker-type performance. It needs something that bends the beautiful conventionality of what Norton was able to deliver as a director and producer to take the story to the next level. Maybe a Shia LaBeouf. A younger Dafoe (who is great in the movie). Sam Rockwell. Tim Blake Nelson. A younger Giamatti. I don’t have THE answer. I would bet that an Edward Norton who was primarily there as an actor would have found another level to the characterization.

I could feel where the film wanted to take me. And there are moments, like Baldwin swimming laps, that were simple perfection. The performances are all good. Get terrific actors and let them work.

But even in early scenes, with Bruce Willis as the hero figure to his employees Norton and Ethan Suplee (which is pronounced with the emphasis on the LEE, I learned tonight), told me what they were, but I didn’t get the rush of sensing that Willis knows the hidden genius of Norton’s Lionel Essrog and puts his faith in it despite Lionel seeming impossibly weird and untrustworthy as a result. The disconnect didn’t connect, so when it changes, it didn’t feel like a change.

I saw the movie a second time to be sure that it wasn’t my imagination. And there are people who definitely disagree with me. But to me, it is crystal clear. The movie is so accomplished on many levels, but is missing the accelerant that makes for greatness.

In Chinatown, it wasn’t just the “mother/daughter” and “daughter/co-parent” thing, but the actors who played the roles. John Huston is so beautifully creepy and Faye Dunaway is so odd and even Nicholson as The Hero is untraditional in every way.

It reminds me of the story that Ronald Reagan almost starred in Casablanca and how his simple good looks and traditional male energy would have lowered the film.

For me, Motherless Brooklyn is the most frustrating kind of movie. So well made, but missing something.

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8 Responses to “Review: Motherless Brooklyn (spoiler-free)”

  1. Mike says:

    I loved the book and thought Norton would be okay in the role, but haven’t seen it yet. But yeah, I can imagine others who would be better. It needs someone who can convey a desperation to be loved and despite Norton’s many skills, that’s never been one of his strengths.

  2. Stella's Boy says:

    Trailers and TV spots have done nothing for me. Did Norton just call in every favor he could or did he also put his own money into it? If it’s the latter, he’s going to lose a few bucks.

  3. palmtree says:

    Interesting that you’d review this of all movies. I never gave it a second thought, but maybe I will now.

    There are so many great things coming out. Would be great to see more consistent reviews.

  4. movieman says:

    Man, it just doesn’t work.

    Yes, it looks great (Dick Pope!), and some of the supporting performances are fine (specifically Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Kenneth Williams, Cherry Jones, Leslie Mann and Bruce Willis whose role is frustratingly minuscule).
    But the biggest mistakes Norton made were (a) giving himself the lead role when he was clearly 20 years too old for the part, (b) and maintaining the book’s Tourette’s tic/schtick which grows tiresome and increasingly irritating over two-and-a-half hours.
    You know something’s seriously wrong when dependable actors like Willem Dafoe, Bobby Cannavale and Dallas Roberts are borderline embarrassing.

    Weirdly, my 3:00 matinee yesterday afternoon was pretty full w/ a mostly senior crowd.

  5. Stella's Boy says:

    Mostly full or not it’s not making any money. Which isn’t surprising. Hell of a cast but somebody is losing some money. They spent some coin advertising it.

  6. movieman says:

    Variety listed the “Motherless” budget at $26-million.
    Not astronomical for a 2019 studio movie, but it’ll still lose somebody a chunk of change.

    “Harriet” cost $17-million and will come close to matching its budget in the first week of release.
    Focus is on a roll.

  7. Stella's Boy says:

    And I forget movieman did Norton put his own money into it? Or just call in all his favors? I know he’s been trying to make it for a while. Is this a case of something that was supposed to be an awards movie dying a quick death? Or were there never Oscar hopes for it?

  8. movieman says:

    SB: I remember reading that Ed Norton asked Bruce Willis to be in the movie when they were shooting “Moonrise Kingdom” a decade ago, and Willis said, “Hell, yeah; I’ll be there!” or words to that effect.
    So I’m guessing Norton called in favors with some of his acting brethren who more than likely agreed to work for scale.
    I’m pretty certain that WB (and Norton) had one-time awards aspirations.
    But the meh reception when it closed the NYFF probably squelched that.
    For what it’s worth, “Brooklyn” is still listed on WB’s awards website (as is, interestingly enough, “Richard Jewell:” I’m guessing Clint’s latest will receive the full-throttle awards push “The Mule” was denied last year).

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon