Current Issue #488

Film Review:
Motherless Brooklyn

Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn

Edward Norton’s drawn-out filming of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel has much to admire, but a bloated running time and some odd choices prevent it from being a proper neo noir masterpiece.

With the picky and tricky Norton serving as director (only his second turn in the top job after the forgotten comedy Keeping The Faith 20 years ago), co-producer and the script adaptor of Lethem’s tale, this has been curiously changed from its late-90s setting to somewhere in the 1950s. But why?

Apparently Norton (who fought to get the film made for years) thought it would make an excellent period pic, and he’d always wanted to do a movie like that. And yes, there was an unmistakable whiff of New York vanity involved as well.

Edward is Lionel Essrog, who works at a detective agency with his lifelong besties Tony Vermonte (Bobby Cannavale), Gilbert Coney (Ethan Suplee) and Danny Fanti (Dallas Roberts), all of whom he knew as a kid back in an abusive orphanage. Lionel is an excellent detective (or ‘gumshoe’) because of his photographic memory, but he also suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome, and the director/star consulted at length with the Tourette’s Association of America to ensure that the character’s tics and compulsive behaviours weren’t overdone.

Nicknamed ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ (or ‘Freakshow’ if his buddies are in a nasty mood), Lionel is introduced with Gilbert shadowing their beloved boss Frank Minna (Bruce Willis in his best performance in many years) from a distance. Frank has documents that threaten a business deal for shonky William Lieberman (Josh Pais), and he’s killed for his efforts – and that’s not really a spoiler, because it sets into motion the whole plot.

Lionel is devastated, and in his grief he finds himself led to a jazz bar in Harlem where a cool ‘Trumpet Man’ (Michael K. Williams as an obvious Miles Davis proxy) becomes an unlikely ally and he also meets Laura Rose (English actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a character not in Lethem’s book). Laura works with the outspoken Gabby Horowitz (Cherry Jones) fighting urban renewal that tears down supposed ‘slums’ where poor and minority groups live, and as Lionel falls for Laura, he runs into some rather darker and more dangerous types, including fearsome commissioner Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin, restrained and menacing) and trouble-making civil engineer Paul (Willem Dafoe), who throws in a Fight Club reference for no good reason.

With a cast like that and a convincingly 50s look, there’s no doubt that Norton’s labour-of-love has its plusses, and his Lionel is hard not to like as he complains of “glass in my head” and can’t understand why Laura isn’t disturbed by his twitching. But the film that surrounds him, at 144 minutes long, is far too epic and indulgent, and the attempts to pointedly comment upon modern American politics fall a little flat.

Yes, as Baldwin’s chilly Moses delivers speeches about “getting things done” and how New York would be nothing without people like him, we’re naturally meant to think of President Trump, but the comparison doesn’t really work, because Moses can string actual coherent sentences together.

Reviewer Rating

Motherless Brooklyn (M) is in cinemas now

DM Bradley

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