You can only admire Edward Norton's sheer devotion to his passion project, a film adaption of MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN.
For nearly two decades, Norton battled to gather the cast and the funds to create his vision. In 2019, the film hit screens. The cast is impressive and when it's not trying too hard, the film is too.
Norton stars as Lionel, a private detective in 1950's New York City who battles Tourette's in nearly every frame. It's fascinating to see a PI trying to be undercover or hide when you know he's liable to bark out some nonsensical comment, rhyme or noise at any moment. But that fascination wears thin about 30 minutes into this two and a half hour film. Actors playing characters with an affliction are Oscar bait, Daniel Day Lewis in "My Left Foot" etc, but in the best of those portrayals the traits become invisible as you get to know the character. It takes 146 minutes of the 150 minute running time for that to happen.
Lionel is the trusted right hand man of Frank Minna (the ageless Bruce Willis). When Minna is murdered, Lionel and his partners in the PI agency dig deeply into the murder.
Bobby Cannavale (The Station Agent), Ethan Suplee (American History X) and Dallas Roberts ( Walk The Line) are his fellow detectives and the agency dynamics are some of the best parts of the film.
Lionel finds himself pulled into a vast political conspiracy involving wealthy power broker Moses Randolph, played by Alec Baldwin, the absolute best thing in the movie.
Baldwin does a film length riff on wielding power, leaving a massive wake behind him.
Willem Dafoe is terrific in a key role, as is Cherry Jones (Defending Jacob) as an outspoken advocate for people being relocated in the name of progress.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is also very good as Laura Rose, who plays the Faye Dunaway piece of a "Chinatown"-like labyrinth of a plot that's centered on real estate instead of water.
You can feel Norton reaching for something epic and he has moments in which he succeeds. The last 40 minutes are arguably nearly Coppola-like in weaving together separate plot points into something special.
Unfortunately, the first half of the film is also riddled with scenes that make you cringe with Norton the director trying too hard.
A low camera shot in which you see the character approach and then walk over the camera is a shot that's supposed to be stylish, but just feels mannered. There are numerous awkward shots until he settles in.
Norton needed a director to pull back some of the over-the-top tourette's moments played for humor that fall flat.
The production design, costumes and atmosphere are all first rate. It looks like it costs three times its actual $26 million budget. All of the major actors reportedly worked for free as a tribute to Norton's conviction.
Unfortunately, audiences ignored the film and it only grossed $18 million worldwide.
I wonder if word of mouth would have been better if the film had been edited by another 20 minutes or so, but frankly I didnt really have a problem with it's length.
If it was shorter, some of the best scenes in the film would have been lost. The entire sequence with Michael Kenneth Williams (The Wire) as a mellow Jazz trumpet player would likely have been cut. It's leisurely, perfectly shot with excellent jazz music and one of the best sequences of the film.
I'll give Norton huge respect for his devotion to the project. It's certainly not a failure by any measure, save the ticket sales.
As a first time writer and second time director, it's an impressive feat. MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN gets an appreciative B-.