Review: Motherless Brooklyn — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Motherless Brooklyn is what in Hollywood they call a vanity project, which means writer, star, and director Edward Norton gets all the credit for everything that’s good — and not so good — about the film.

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Motherless Brooklyn

⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Run Time 2 hours 24 minutes

Rating: R

Stars: Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Willem Dafoe, Bruce Willis

Writer: Edward Norton (Based on Jonathan Lethem’s novel)

Director: Edward Norton

 One name in that bold-faced list above explains both the considerable strengths and undeniable weaknesses of this lavish tale of a small-time detective taking on the powers that ran 1950s New York City.

The name is Edward Norton, and it appears three times: as star, writer, and director. He’s also a producer of the film, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he bought everyone lunch each day, as well.

In short, Motherless Brooklyn is what in Hollywood they call a vanity project, which means Norton gets all the credit for everything that’s good about the film: Its uncanny re-creation of Manhattan in the ’50s, steady performances by a pitch-perfect cast, and a current of commitment that infuses every frame.

But as the man in charge, Norton must also take responsibility for the film’s ponderous length, its over-reliance on the central character’s brain disorder as a plot device, and the insistent inclusion of entire scenes that should never have been shot, much less left on the cutting room floor.

Still, Norton, working from the best-selling novel by Brooklyn-born Jonathan Lethem, has crafted an undeniably appealing character for himself. He stars as Lionel Essrog, a detective afflicted with then little-understood Tourette’s Syndrome. The condition causes him to erupt with uncontrollable expletives, along with other physical and verbal tics, at the most inopportune moments. But because Essrog’s condition causes him to obsess over details and patterns, it makes him a perfect detective, collecting the most obscure clues and organizing them in the RAM of his jumbled brain. With his puppy dog face and gentle demeanor, Norton draws us into Lionel’s interior world, sharing his triumphs and embarrassments in equal measure

Motherless Brooklyn gets to its central mystery with admirable speed. When Lionel’s understanding boss Frank Minna (Bruce Willis, gone too soon) is killed by thugs, Lionel and the four remaining members of the detective agency go about trying to solve the murder. Well, Lionel does, anyway — the others, especially the senior staffer, played by gruffly appealing Bobby Cannavale, seem oddly disinterested in getting to the bottom of it.

Lionel follows the trail of suspects all the way up to Harlem, where he befriends a sexy singer named Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an anti-urban renewal activist and daughter of a kindly jazz club owner (Robert Wisdom) who may know too much about Minna’s death. Also flitting about the periphery of Lionel’s investigation is a nervous small-time architect (Willem Dafoe), a guy with a mysterious connection to Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), New York’s all-powerful master builder.

Baldwin’s character is a thinly disguised portrayal of Robert Moses, the New York powerbroker who forged the identity of the city by hurling mighty bridges across its rivers and rolling broad highways through its neighborhoods. The real Moses’ ruthless disregard for the societal disruptions he caused — fueled, many say, by simple racism — becomes the film’s chief theme in its second half. For many, Baldwin’s frequent portrayal of President Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live will inform their understanding of this character; for others, it will be a distraction. Either way, Baldwin makes the most of the role, especially in one powerful scene between Moses and Lionel in which the stars’ mutual scenery chewing threatens to bring the set crashing down.

One gets the distinct sense that Norton envisioned Motherless Brooklyn as an East Coast Chinatown, a cautionary tale of corrupt infrastructure development wrapped in a noir mystery. As Roman Polanski did in that masterpiece, Norton succeeds in creating a remarkable sense of place that goes beyond merely having the right model cars parked along the curbs. His invocation of a New York still unsteady after two decades of Depression and world war, willing to bulldoze its past in search of a more promising future, is gloriously envisioned in a spectacular recreation of the old Penn Station, its vaulted glass ceiling towering above the city’s now-small, seemingly insignificant citizens.

Lethem’s 1999 novel predates Tony Shaloub’s classic obsessive-compulsive TV detective, Monk, but as a film Motherless Brooklyn must live in the shadow of that monumental character. In the series, Shaloub’s “defective detective” went about his work without much self-awareness — but here too much of the film is spent on Lionel explaining his condition to others (“It’s like having glass in my brain…”).

He could have used a calling card like the one Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker hands out to confused strangers, explaining why he often bursts into uncontrollable laughter, and spared us the repetitious exposition.

If only Edward Norton the producer had told Edward Norton the screenwriter to streamline Edward Norton the star’s lines a bit, Edward Norton the director might have had a mini masterpiece on his hands.

Featured image: Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Laura Rose and Edward Norton as Lionel Essrog in Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama Motherless Brooklyn, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Copyright: © 2019 Warner Bros. Ent. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Glen Wilson

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