Film noir can be a tough sell in modern cinema. Motherless Brooklyn seems intent on displaying all the reasons why it doesn’t work, but that doesn’t mean it’s a total waste of 144 minutes.
When a film in 2019 not only has a voiceover, but that voiceover uses the word “gumshoe” without irony, you know you’re in for something wearing nostalgia on its sleeve. Lionel (director and screenwriter Edward Norton) is a private investigator who works on a team with some very old friends. When his oldest and closest, Frank (Bruce Willis), asks him to be backup on a visit with some shady men, he doesn’t hesitate. Lionel would do anything for Frank. The meeting goes bad, Frank gets shot, and now Lionel must use all of his gumshoeing skills to figure out what happened to him.
To add some further complications, Lionel is not your average detective. He has Tourette syndrome, in addition to what looks to be Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and a healthy dash of Savant syndrome that manifests as a nearly flawless memory. The memory aids him greatly in his investigations, and was the reason Frank enlisted him for backup, but the other symptoms of his various issues tend to get in the way of his relationships and professional pursuits.
As Lionel looks into Frank’s death, he begins to realize that Frank was mixed in with some very big players in the New York City government. The deeper he gets, the more he realizes that this goes all the way to the top. The ensuing investigation gets messy fast and only drives Lionel further to find out what really happened.
Adapted from the book by Jonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn needed to be cut more liberally to fit into the medium of film. The adaptation has far too many subplots and too many character backstories and motivations, which makes the entire film feel far too crowded with content. Major plot points are dropped into casual conversation and the characters aren’t given the proper time to react and reflect. This leaves us feeling distant and detached from them. We’re hurried through a plot rather than allowed to experience a world.
The flattened characters paired with the hurtling plot might have worked in a more stylized movie, but rather than flirting with homage or satire, Motherless Brooklyn clings to being a vaguely realistic film, rooted in reality. It never winks at the audience or the camera, and takes itself mostly seriously. While it does take on some heady issues that would justify the earnest tone, like classism and racism, Lionel’s humorous outbursts and the one-dimensional characters are better suited for a diegesis that’s aware of its own shortcomings.
To anyone yearning to revisit the old noir days of fedoras and dames, Motherless Brooklyn will be a fun little throwback. However, the accumulation of missteps in its execution are far too many for me.