Though it was far from the most acclaimed film of this year’s main slate, it made sense for the 57th New York Film Festival to close with Motherless Brooklyn. The NYFF is the a major festival-season gathering that still feels a little bit local, and as such, has an unofficial but clear obligation to its hometown. That was evident in the opening night selection (Scorsese!), the centerpiece selection (Baumbach!), the quasi-secret screening (Safdies!), and a reoriented version of Motherless Brooklyn that takes place in the 1950s instead of the Jonatham Lethem novel’s then-contemporary 1990s.
Brooklyn had a particular weight on it this year because Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, while set in a familiar Classic Scorsese milieu, is not actually a New York crime picture—it’s more of a tri-state area affair. Uncut Gems (as yet unseen by me) is legit NYC, but it wasn’t an officially announced main-slate attraction. So that leaves Edward Norton’s passion project as the crime movie representing New York City, playing alongside The Irishman (skulking around Philadelphia and New Jersey) and Arnaud Desplechin’s Oh Mercy! (set in the French city of Roubaix).
Desplechin’s movie is a fascinating failure—or rather, it starts out fascinating and turns into a failure, as it fixates unproductively on what turns out to be its main story. It starts out as an ambling but clear-eyed tour of Roubaix through the Christmas-night calls supervised by police chief Daoud (Roschdy Zem) and attended by new officer Louis (Antoine Reinartz). It’s sort of a humanist procedural, observing the details of police work on a number of minor cases. But then comes a major one: an elderly woman is murdered, and eventually her previously seen neighbors Marie (Sara Forestier) and Claude (Léa Seydoux) become major suspects. They’re interviewed separately, then together. Their stories don’t exactly match up. They walk the cops through the crime scene, and their stories still don’t match up. The cops interrogate them, the ladies interrogate each other, and the cops interrogate them some more.
It feels realistic, in the sense that so much detective work must actually be depressing, unsatisfying tedium. Zem is terrific as the analytical Daoud, but he’s a lot more interesting overseeing a bunch of little Christmas night police business than pushing a couple of women on the details of how and why they may have killed their neighbor. That’s clearly what Oh Mercy! wants to be; it feels churlish to complain that the movie’s set-up portends something different and better that Desplechin has no obligation to explore. But it’s hard to understand what he’s getting at with the second half of the movie. It’s not a mystery, and its sociology becomes so specific to these two (not very interesting) characters that it feels like, well, work.
Motherless Brooklyn also starts better than it finishes. Its in-media-res set-up, explaining how Lionel (Edward Norton), a middle-aged guy dealing with Tourette syndrome, makes his living as part of a ramshackle private-eye (and taxi) operation run by Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), has a lot of movie-movie life. Norton the director lines up actor after actor and gives them parts slightly (or in some cases enormously) meatier than their usual: Willis, Bobby Cannavale, Alec Baldwin, Leslie Mann, Ethan Suplee, and Norton himself, who has been more of an occasional presence in movies this decade (and hasn’t directed a movie in the nearly two decades since his similarly NYC-centric rom-com Keeping the Faith).
The actual mystery of Motherless Brooklyn—figuring out why one of Lionel’s business associates has been murdered; not even who did it, but why it happened—gets less surprising as it goes along. It’s got plenty of familiar noir plot touchstones, and Norton isn’t a major stylist behind the camera. But the movie has enough character-actor color and striking visual compositions to keep it running, even if it overstays its welcome at nearly two-and-a-half hours. Norton pulls in a fictionalized version of New York City urban planner/monster Robert Moses, like he knew he wouldn’t ever get the chance to adapt The Power Broker as a separate movie. It’s an overreach that nonetheless kinda works with the movie’s gumshoe energy. A lot of Motherless Brooklyn plays like a later-period Clint Eastwood infused with more energy and a playfulness about genre that Eastwood only intermittently indulges. Why should Eastwood be the only guy to receive the benefit of the doubt for his low-fuss classicism?
Motherless Brooklyn is entertaining enough as a yarn that it doesn’t really have to stick the landing; Mercy’s more observant, methodical qualities mean there’s less to hold your attention (or, anyway, my attention) as it enters miserable dirge mode. They’re contrasting case studies in how often crime pictures are enticing in their beginnings more than their endings. Juxtaposed with The Irishman at NYFF, both movies really highlight how Scorsese proves (quadruple re-confirms, really) his mettle. The Irishman gains depth and power in its final stretch, embracing its many grim inevitabilities. It’s a long, 210-minute march to the finish line, but when it crosses, it feels like more than a genre exercise. It’s the feeling that Brooklyn and Mercy are both chasing, and never quite catch.