Skip to main content

Hot tits on my milky tea, please.

Motherless Brooklyn
(2019)

(SPOILERS) Edward Norton’s extremely loose adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 noir pastiche is uber-liberal in intent, making it uber-ironic that Norton should wade brazenly into a quagmire of white-saviour tropes. I’m generally on board with checking out anything “notoriously difficult” Norton appears in, even if his choices are occasionally regrettable (Collateral Beauty). He is, however, nothing if not weighed down by piercing intellect and concomitant social conscience, one he feels compelled to massage (he’s the kind of prominent activist who declares celebrities should “participate quietly” in such matters). Motherless Brooklyn has a lot going for it, but it’s ultimately sunk by that need to espouse noble causes.

Norton snapped up Lethem’s novel soon after publication; he doubtless would have made it sooner, had he not continually managed to get in the way of his own Hollywood profile (his most prominent pictures – American History X, Red Dragon, The Incredible Hulk – invariably inviting the “difficult and controlling” tag). Lethem’s hook, a PI with Tourette syndrome, was evidently the principle attraction to the actor, since he throws almost everything else out. Gone is the contemporary setting and a plot involving the mob and Buddhist monks, replaced by a 1950s milieu and a conspiracy centred on “master builder” Robert Moses, here renamed Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin).

The actual Moses’ achievements as a New York city planner are mired in controversy, and Norton particularly draws on his displacement of residents and destruction of neighbourhoods, along with accompanying accusations of racism. You may wonder why Norton should be so interested in this character? Well, his granddad James Rouse represented, to young Ed, the complete and venerable opposite of such reckless intent. Motherless Brooklyn became, accordingly a “homage to things he cared about”. Rouse set forth city projects based on “planned communities” – which sounds horrific, whatever the intent – that appear to have been a considered and successful endeavour. He was in favour of integrated communities, and his most notable success, Columbia Maryland, ranks as the fifth best place to live in the US (as ever, I suspect these things depend entirely on who you ask).

Of course, one needs to recognise that Rouse rose to the status of the kind of figure likely to receive a presidential medal. He’s one Norton can balance as fundamentally opposed to his villain (Moses), which in itself suggests an embodiment of the Hegelian dialectic; in any Hegelian mechanism the reinforcement of the state is essential, and so it is that the federal government provides many of the jobs in Columbia. Would Norton be conscious of such machinations? He is obviously a very bright fellow, too bright for many filmmakers – who find him “difficult and controlling”, remember – but that doesn’t necessarily mean he questions the programming directly feeding his social conscience and prodding him towards ever-so valuable and honourable projects.

After all, Ed’s a Yale graduate and was a competitive rower there (probably not enough of a team player for the Skull and Bones, though). He’s a UN Goodwill Ambassador, buys into climate change and thinks Greta Grunberg is a little angel (the little part is correct). He drinks the Kool Aid, which may go some way to explain how he could end up producing a picture so patronising to the cause it espouses.

Norton’s Lionel Essrog is nicknamed “Freakshow” for his condition, and he represents the sort of ardent method actor’s role you’d have seen Dustin Hoffman pursuing in the mid-80s, followed by similar awards-baiting, disability-flourishing turns by the likes of De Niro and Pacino. Indeed, Lionel’s man-child savant aspect is dangerous ground (he’s at once streetwise and a pariah, as well as carrying an emotionally virginal quality that takes you back to the ingloriously halcyon days of De Niro in Awakenings). This is only compounded by associating his affliction with the affliction suffered by the black community (Michael K Williams is even trotted out to say as much). So Lionel, as their crusader and defender, becomes the type of figure Norton should have had the sense to steer clear of even were this a straight adaptation, let alone expressly sculpting it into one flaunting such tropes.

Instead, Norton seems to double down, as Lionel receives admiring words for the part of his brain in tune with jazz and has Gugu Mbatha-Raw dote all over him like a rash (Lionel, of course, is her protector and greatest ally). Quite aside from how dubious all this is, Norton’s personal interest in Moses gets in the way of his detective story, cluttering up Motherless Brooklyn’s two-and-a-quarter-hour running time with melodramatic diversions and attempts to explore the period’s social fabric (ie give a lecture).

It doesn’t help any either that the gist of Lionel’s investigation into why his mentor and detective agency boss Frank (Bruce Willis) got offed is quite clear early on, before further elaborating on these Chinatown-esque property machinations with even more Chinatown-esque scandalously illicit offspring. But while Norton is a serviceable director – much more so than in his previous picture, lightweight romcom Keeping the Faith – he brings none of the necessary economy of storytelling and fails to muster the inner tension fostered by a good mystery.

Several things keep the picture watchable through its longueurs, however. Firstly, and most importantly, is Norton’s tic-riddled performance, every bit as well observed as you would expect. Then there’s the cast he has assembled – mostly working for free apparently – including Alec Baldwin (familiarly authoritarian as Moses), Willem Dafoe (familiarly hyper as Moses’ brother Paul), Bobby Cannavale (familiarly duplicitous as fellow detective Tony), Leslie Mann (familiarly superfluous as Frank’s wife) and Fisher Stevens (familiarly diminutive as a heavy).

Motherless Brooklyn’s production was marred by a fire that cost a life, and the picture failed to make a profit on its release. It isn’t hard to work out why, as a vanity project that dissatisfies in all the departments its attempting to score. Control freak rather than Freakshow, Norton probably needed to step back in at least one of the producer-director-writer-actor departments, but he lets his obsessiveness confound the material.


Popular posts from this blog

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018) (SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless  Heat  rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but  Den of Thieves  is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

This guy’s armed with a hairdryer.

An Innocent Man (1989) (SPOILERS) Was it a chicken-and-egg thing with Tom Selleck and movies? Did he consistently end up in ropey pictures because other, bigger big-screen stars had first dibs on the good stuff? Or was it because he was a resolutely small-screen guy with limited range and zero good taste? Selleck had about half-a-dozen cinema outings during the 1980s, one of which, the very TV, very Touchstone Three Men and a Baby was a hit, but couldn’t be put wholly down to him. The final one was An Innocent Man , where he attempted to show some grit and mettle, as nice-guy Tom is framed and has to get tough to survive. Unfortunately, it’s another big-screen TV movie.

Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists!

Don’t Look Up (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s testament to Don’t Look Up ’s “quality” that critics who would normally lap up this kind of liberal-causes messaging couldn’t find it within themselves to grant it a free pass. Adam McKay has attempted to refashion himself as a satirist since jettisoning former collaborator Will Ferrell, but as a Hollywood player and an inevitably socio-politically partisan one, he simply falls in line with the most obvious, fatuous propagandising.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.

Archimedes would split himself with envy.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) (SPOILERS) Generally, this seems to be the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad outing that gets the short straw in the appreciation stakes. Which is rather unfair. True, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger lacks Tom Baker and his rich brown voice personifying evil incarnate – although Margaret Whiting more than holds her own in the wickedness stakes – and the structure follows the Harryhausen template perhaps over scrupulously (Beverly Cross previously collaborated with the stop-motion auteur on Jason and the Argonauts , and would again subsequently with Clash of the Titans ). But the storytelling is swift and sprightly, and the animation itself scores, achieving a degree of interaction frequently more proficient than its more lavishly praised peer group.