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