Thursday, November 7, 2019


Rated:  R 

STARS: Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bobby Cannavale, Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe
DIRECTOR: Edward Norton
GENRE: Drama

When you write the screenplay and direct yourself as the star along with the rest of the cast in a film, as Edward Norton does in Motherless Brooklyn, the success or failure of the project falls squarely upon your shoulders. It's enough to drive you to sudden outbursts of shouting nonsensical shit at no one in particular--which is what Norton's character, Lionel Essrog, does as a private dick with Tourette's Syndrome-- investigating greed, corruption, and racial discrimination at the highest levels of municipal government in 1950s New York. The Tourette's does nothing to advance the plot, but it humanizes and makes Lionel a more sympathetic character. 

It's clear that in making Motherless Brooklyn it was more important for Norton to create a credible looking milieu and a mesmerizing noir mood than it was to move the plot forward at anything faster than a geriatric snail's pace--thus we have the two and a half hour running time. Yes, scenes go on too long to placate the average attention span these days, but within that framework there is extra time to immerse oneself in the languid authenticity and nuance of the richly textured world that Norton has created, aided and abetted by a velvety jazz soundtrack from Daniel Pemberton.

 And it's one of those involved plots that if you don't pay razor sharp attention, you'll only have a sketchy idea of who's who and what kind of skulduggery they are up to. Toward the end, though, I was able to tie up most of the loose ends when several aha! moments were revealed. 

Interesting cameos from Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, and Willem Dafoe, all of whom could carry a film on their own. But Willis--as Lionel's boss and mentor--gets whacked early on when he gets too close to some closely guarded secrets. He appears in a couple of flashback scenes later on.

The most "forceful" take of these three comes from Baldwin as an unscrupulous urban developer. Whether he's forcing minorities from their homes in the name of sweeping progress, or forcing himself on a woman of color, an incident from his deep dark past that is at the heart of the central mystery of the film, he is sneeringly ruthless.  

Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays a young, pretty housing activist who serves as the black cup of java to Lionel's non-dairy creamer--the two of them getting mixed up with each other and becoming romantically involved. Perhaps this interracial affair is portrayed too casually for the times in which it occurs.

In the end, I'm a mood guy...and a fall-under-the-spell-of-the-music guy...and a look-at-all-them-cool-vintage-cars guy...and that stuff can win me over because I'm easy (as Keith Carradine once said) and I'll forgive a lot of stuff if there's other stuff that really makes me smile. 

Grade:  A -


I'm far less tolerant than my co-reviewer. But I agree that Motherless Brooklyn was long, languidly-paced and cinematically dark. My problem was credibility.  Would you give a driver's license to somebody who twitches involuntarily and has little control over when these spasms occur? I realize the film is based on a book, a "novel" by Jonathan Lethem. (I put novel in quotes to emphasis that it wasn't autobiographical.) But I never bought into the premise that the main character's ability to remember every little detail would override his physical limitations.  Bruce Willis' character obviously did.

For me, sitting through a film I feel is totally unbelievable is a challenge. What kept me watching was the totally believable acting. Edward Norton (who appeared in one of my all time favorite movies, American History X) was superb.  Same with the rest of the cast. I couldn't help making comparisons between the unscrupulous character Alec Baldwin plays in this film and the part he has so beautifully perfected on SNL. (I'd love to ask him if he used Trump as a role model here!)

Having absolute control of all aspects of a film—the script, the directing, playing the lead—has to be a thankless task in the end. Something's got to suffer. In Norton's case?  I seriously question his editing skills.

Still, Motherless Brooklyn sheds light on a disorder I'd never really thought about. And if I ever run into someone with Tourette's now, I will be a lot more understanding -- and less uncomfortable.

Grade: C +