Edward Norton writes, directs, produces and stars in Motherless Brooklyn, an old fashioned film noir thriller in the vein of the Sam Spade gumshoe detective novels of the 1930’s by writer Dashiell Hammett. Based on the Jonathan Lethem novel, Norton has changed a few things from the book to the big screen, most notably the time period. The book is set in the late 1990’s but the film is set in the 1950’s. It plays better as a 1950’s film, too. Norton’s character, Lionel Essrog suffers from Tourette’s syndrome. But he is not represented as dumb or stupid. To the contrary. He is observant and remembers everything. Lionel works for Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) at the L & L Detective Agency along with Tony (Bobby Cannavale), Gilbert (Ethan Suplee) and Danny (Dallas Roberts). As the film opens, it is revealed that Frank is in over his head when he tries to blackmail the local county board supervisors.When Frank is gunned down (relax, this is no surprise since it happens in the first 10 minutes of the film), Lionel sets out to find out why.
Lionel almost on his own discovers massive corruption and scandals all led by Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), a nasty, hateful SOB that is all about what he can steal for himself and bury the rest. The corruption that Lionel uncovers makes Tammany Hall look like Sunday School. People, mostly of color, but poor people, in general, are being evicted from their homes and apartments so the buildings can be demolished and the property seized and sold. Randolph and his goon squad then split their ill-gotten gains and move on to the next group of unfortunates. Now, there is more plot in Motherless Brooklyn but for the sake of staying spoiler free, I will stop right here.
Motherless Brooklyn is rather stuffed film. Numerous characters come and go and some are more defined than others. The film is a long one, too. With a run time of almost two and a half hours, there is a lot of tedium to have to sit through. But Norton is such a master of his acting craft that he is a joy to watch and that is really the meat of this picture. The film is a handsome one with wonderful production values. The cars, the clothes, Daniel Pemberton’s score, with some original jazz pieces composed by Wynton Marsalis makes an indelible mark on Motherless Brooklyn. If only Norton had fleshed this script out a bit more, it would not feel like a long slog through the jungle.
Motherless Brooklyn is a slow boil. Real slow. The final scandal that is meant to be shocking, really turns out to be almost anti-climactic. But the acting is solid throughout and the cast is impressive. With a film like this, it is not what is said, so much as it is how it is said. This is a stylish film, even though some of the real meat of the story has been changed. Just know that if you enter into this world of New York in the 1950’s, you will need to be patient. Norton’s directing style is slow and methodical. I appreciated that, too. Still, this film will try some people’s patience and I appreciate that, as well. Just settle in for an atmospheric and moody piece of filmmaking.
Motherless Brooklyn – *** out of 5
Motherless Brooklyn – Rated R for language some violence
Motherless Brooklyn – Run time is 144 minutes
Motherless Brooklyn is now available on DVD, On Demand and subscription services.