Starring Edward Norton, Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Leslie Mann, Willem Dafoe, Bobby Cannavale, Dallas Roberts, Cherry Jones,
In Edward Norton’s sophomore feature as director (his first official writing credit), the era might be the 50’s, but he wields the audience back to the early 1990s, where lite mobster/crime movies were a dime a dozen (A Bronx Tale, Primal Fear, Heat). The saxophone led original score by Daniel Pemberton (Steve Jobs) transports the viewer back to a different era of filmmaking. The cinematography, editing, and leisurely takes, allow “Motherless Brooklyn” (also starring Norton), to develop over its long time. Scenes where Norton’s character is peering around a corner, wearing the iconic private eye hat, face half shadowed in light, steam illuminated from some crummy bar light, reminds us they don’t make movies like this anymore. It’s an impressive ensemble, but Norton’s vision is the most intriguing aspect.
Lionel Essrog (Norton) was born with a condition (Tourette’s Syndrome), he doesn’t know what it’s called but constantly apologizes for saying inappropriate things. Private eye Frank Minna (Willis) was the only one who gave the oddball a chance. He’s been a faithful servant and employee ever since. When a hunch turns into a meeting gone wrong, Frank stumbles onto something that claims his life. Lionel and the other ragtag associates are devastated and devote all their energy to figuring out who offed their boss. This leads Lionel on a wild chase through New York’s power players, as he pretends to be a reporter to gather information. Moses Randolph (Baldwin) might not be the mayor, but he has more power than anyone and isn’t afraid to use it. As he plows through poor Black neighborhoods to redevelop the city, his goals and Lionel’s curiosity meet somewhere in the middle.
"Baldwin has been meaner, Dafoe wormier, and Cannavale less predictable."
Lionel is excellent at remembering details, which is good because this story has a lot to follow. As the viewer tries to piece together the puzzle, along with our protagonist, we are continually amused by the bizarre and twisted things that come out of his mouth, acting as guilty comic relief. At certain moments “Motherless Brooklyn” will waffle into a scene that looks like it was plucked from one of Eastwood’s flicks or that maybe Michael Keaton’s “Batman” will appear any moment. It’s a surprisingly calming film with its vintage score and paced conversation. Baldwin has been meaner, Dafoe wormier, and Cannavale less predictable. The standouts among the cast are Mbatha-Raw (“Belle”) and Jones, who gets more screentime here than her last previous two films combined. That being said, there isn’t a standout or award-worthy performance in the whole cast.
There are some noticeable editing/continuity errors, but technicalities aside it’s a solid and more complete film for Norton than his previous endeavor. The message on corruptive power is a fairly weak one that gives way to romance over justice. His focus is on working with actors he respects and offering an audience cinematic nostalgia. Norton’s treatment of the neurological disorder is neither disrespectful nor is it the sum of this character. “Motherless Brooklyn” is neither a superb achievement for the year nor a flop. It just doesn’t have anything that really makes it stand out among this year’s fall line up which is mostly movies angling towards awards season.
Norton’s "Motherless Brooklyn," is a step in the right direction for the actor turned director as he re-envisions a crime drama with 90s era cinematic appeal.