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

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994) (SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction ’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump . And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson (2016) (SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is. Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappoint

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.