Sarah Callen

A film that loved itself a little too much.

Motherless Brooklyn movie poster

I was very excited to see Motherless Brooklyn in the weeks leading up to its release. Edward Norton starring and directing this film was enough for me to be bought into it, but the appeal didn’t stop there. The premise of a brilliant gumshoe main character who also suffers from Tourette’s was such a creative twist on the detective trope. This main character didn’t have to be addicted to anything or fighting against any internal demons, his body itself was fighting against him.

I snuggled into my seat in the theater, fully prepared to be wowed by this film. And I left thinking that it was just okay.

I wasn’t in awe of it — I wasn’t swept up in the story or lost in the wonderful characters. Most of the time, I was wondering why they decided to drag everything out and make the movie so long. There was one moment, when the camera was panning through the empty streets of Brooklyn in the fall, when it hit me: this film fell in love with itself. The whole thing is too indulgent for its own good.

There were plenty of moments in this film that were reminiscent of classic noir: the worn-out gumshoe, the damsel in distress, and an overly complicated mystery to unravel. But it didn’t feel like a noir. Though it had some of the classic benchmarks of the genre, I didn’t find myself wondering if our hero would pull everything off in the end. They did some things to heighten the stakes and speed up the pace toward the end of the film, but I still didn’t worry too about the danger that Lionel and Laura were in. I figured they’d make it out okay, which is not something you want while watching a noir.

And while I appreciate the political activism woven throughout and the filmmakers’ choice to shine a light on housing inequality and discrimination, as I was leaving the theater, I couldn’t help but wonder if that would’ve been better conveyed in a different style. What if Motherless Brooklyn hadn’t been positioned as a noir — would the message of equality be stronger? Or would the noir have landed better if they had stuck to the mystery instead of getting wrapped up in a political message?

To me, this film tried to do too many things and liked itself too much way more than I did. It was far too long for my taste and the pacing always felt was off, but I couldn’t figure out if that was intentional or not. Thankfully, Edward Norton’s performance and the soundtrack were both phenomenal and well worth watching. I appreciate the creativity, courage, and heart that were required to make this film and I hope to see more like it in the future.

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