You have to give it to directors who also star in their films, it’s a tricky art. Actually, I’d say it’s hard enough doing one or the other without making it harder for yourself.
That doesn’t mean that actors don’t give it a good old college try. Many try, some fail, some excel, just ask Clint Eastwood. Well, now Edward Norton is having another crack at the directors chair, I say ‘another’ because he has directed before, almost twenty years ago he directed Keeping the Faith, and no, I haven’t heard of it either.
Norton has proven himself previously as a hell of a talent in front of the camera, so let’s see how he does behind it.
A private eye, Lionel (Edward Norton), with a condition similar to Tourette’s (Norton) sees his mentor gunned down before his eyes. He feels the impulse to investigate and the intrigue grows…
I find myself in a difficult position with this film. You see there are enough individual aspects within it that would usually mark it out as a worthy of recommendation, but it does doesn’t gel together as a film in the long run.
Firstly, it’s far too long. The plot only really gets moving about an hour into the narrative, and there’s still on end in sight, it never allows itself time to fully build momentum, occasionally feeling like it’s crawling along looking for somewhere to go, so it builds to a climax that the audience can foresee long before the characters, it can’t help but be a bit of an anti-climax.
The plot itself would have been more engaging with a more stream-lined approach, anything up to half an hour could have been cut with little to no loss to the overall plot, it all seems like a creative with too much creative control. A creative vision is all well and good, but you need a modicum of restraint to see what doesn’t work. The very problem that films like Heaven’s Gate have had. Obviously, I can’t say that for certain, but that’s what it feels like.
It makes it all the more the pity that the film is so technically brilliant. It looks amazing with some truly eye-catching cinematography and its use of retro noir style tropes works nicely with its visual style, it all mixes into a very nice blend of the old and the new. Sure, a few of the old tropes can become cliches, but sometimes that works, when you find a new angle, and the classic PI shtick is turned around somewhat with Lionel’s affliction.
Speaking of which, portraying such a condition on screen is always a bit of a minefield ethically, there’s a fine line between accuracy and mockery with these kinds of things, and while I don’t think it was guilty of undermining the condition, but it does tend to lean on the tics and outbursts for laughs, it also doesn’t use it to enhance the dramatic side of the plot I feel, besides a bit of name-calling that he brushes off without a though, it’s hard to understand why it was so heavily leaned on throughout the film.
Of course there are other aspects to the affliction, all surrounding how he hears and processes words, but they’re not very well explained and can seem a bit vague. I get the impression Norton was aiming for a ‘Rain Man’ style character, if he was, the parts of his condition he uses to his advantage aren’t shown anywhere near enough times to put them into context, it just leaves his character a bit confused and messy.
However flawed the character may be, he’s at least well-acted. Norton throws himself into the part with gusto and is very believable in the character, no matter how vague it may be. There’s also good performances from Alec Baldwin, who plays a classic ruthless businessman, and Willem Dafoe once again reminds us of how under-used he is by being an integral supporting part of the grander story.
So, that’s Motherless Brooklyn, overall a bit of a disappointment. A nice little idea that was knee-capped by an inflated run-time and glacial pacing, it’s almost saved by its top-notch direction/cinematography, as well as some good performances, but ultimately it left me feeling frustrated. It had all the puzzle pieces to put together a great film, it just put them in the wrong order.