Film Review: In “Motherless Brooklyn,” Edward Norton Shines Twice

Film poster: “Motherless Brooklyn”

Motherless Brooklyn (Edward Norton, 2019) 3½ out of 4 stars.

An adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s eponymous 1999 novel – though with some apparently significant changes (I have not read the book, myself) – Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn takes us back to 1950s New York, when private detectives lurked around corners, artfully backlit to make their silhouettes pop. Or maybe that’s just how we who never lived in that time think of it, given the aesthetics of the period’s films noirthat have forever colored our cinematic memory. In any case, Norton’s goal here seems to be to evoke an atmosphere as much of movie nostalgia as of actual history, though his choice of time (different than the book) and place (the same) are deliberate, given his narrative and ideological aspirations. Whatever his motivation, Motherless Brooklyn works for most of its (long) running time, dragging in spots but still engaging, throughout. The terrific performances from its stellar cast, Norton included, do not hurt, either.

Norton plays Lionel Essrog, a junior gumshoe in the employ of one Frank Minna (Bruce Willis, Glass). Smart and capable, he is also afflicted with Tourette’s, a tic disorder that is both physical and verbal. When we first meet him, he is on a stakeout with a partner, obsessively yanking at a sweater thread until the whole sleeve unravels, spitting out nonsensical rhyming phrases based on the situation (he’ll also pull them out of snatches of overheard dialogue, at times). Stress increases his symptoms, though it can also focus his mind. Here, he needs focus, as Minna is on a case that proves more dangerous than usual. The resultant chase scene across a bridge on New York’s East River is masterfully realized and gripping, though it ends in tragedy. Norton’s command of camera and pace is intense in these opening moments, keeping us enthralled. He’ll bring it back when needed, though he sometimes indulges in soggy sentimentality, as well.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn ©Warner Bros.

For the rest of the film, there’s a mystery, rooted in that opener, to solve, and Lionel, tics and all, is the man to do it. Norton has more on his mind than a noirish police procedural, however, though the framing device is what holds our attention. His larger objective is to skewer the myth of the late Robert Moses, a New York City Commissioner (of multiple authorities) responsible for the destruction of many old neighborhoods throughout the metropolitan area, as well as for the construction of a great number of bridges, parks and more. Though many applauded his efforts at the time, attitudes changed in the 1960s and 1970s, and we can now more clearly see how much he neglected infrastructure for the poor (and people of color) in favor of the upwardly mobile (and white) population of the rising middle class. Norton uses the fictional crime at the center of his tale as a metaphor for Moses’ actual crimes, as he sees them, against the city and its residents.  

Alec Baldwin (Framing John DeLorean) plays Moses Randolph, a not-so-subtly named surrogate for the real-life man he incarnates (and a not-so-subtle jab at another, modern-day developer Baldwin often plays on Saturday Night Live). Imperious and commanding, he brooks no threat to his power. Somehow, the facts of the case point to him, though we’re not quite sure, at first, how. Other clues point to another character, Paul, played by Willem Dafoe (The Lighthouse), or to a young woman, Laura, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Fast Color), with other potential participants hovering in the background. Norton as director keeps the pieces moving in a briskly entertaining manner (except when he doesn’t), but is almost outshone by his own skills as an actor. I know nothing about Tourette’s, yet was impressed by the consistency of how Norton played the part, and the way he never let Lionel be defined by the condition. He is not afraid to use it to humorous effect, however, and it proves useful in scenes of high tension as a comic foil to the sometimes depressing subject matter. Overall, this is an impressive turn for him, in both roles; it’s only his second time behind the camera (the first was the 2000 Keeping the Faith). Occasionally flawed though Motherless Brooklyn may be, it is more often than not an exciting, extremely watchable thriller.

Alec Baldwin and Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn ©Warner Bros.

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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