MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN – A Review by Cynthia Flores
Motherless Brooklyn is like a postcard from the 1950s in New York City. It looks pretty, but it just has a few trite lines of “Wish you were here,” scribbled on the back.
The film was written, directed, and produced by its leading man Edward Norton. Those are a lot of hats to wear all at the same time considering he hasn’t directed anything since the romantic comedy Keeping The Faith in 2000. It’s based on a book he read over twenty years ago. During those twenty years, Norton kept busy doing amazing work as an actor in such films as Fight Club, The Illusionist, Moonrise Kingdom, and Birdman. However, the themes of the story in the novel Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem kept resonating with Norton. He saw the need to tell the story because of the social and political concerns, just simmering beneath the surface of America’s current culture.
Norton says he changed the timing of the story from modern times to the fifties because of the way the characters spoke. He decided to set his very stylized riff on a Neo-noir New York crime story at a time of great change in the city. Bringing the story to the big screen has been a labor of love from Norton for the main character Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton). Lionel is a lonely private detective. He’s got a sharp mind, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and a bad case of Tourette Syndrome. The actor gets wonderfully lost in his portrayal of this gentle soul. Brooklyn is the nickname his boss and best friend Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) gave him when they were kids. Life is predictable and good for Lionel until a job goes horribly wrong. Frank is mixed up in something big and gets shot in front of Lionel and Gilbert (Ethan Suplee) a fellow private detective that works for Frank.
Lionel ventures out on his own to solve the murder of his mentor Frank. Armed only with a few clues and the engine of his obsessed mind he finds the girl that he thinks is at the center of it all. The lovely Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). She’s a community-minded lawyer who is fighting against the brutal tactics of the corrupt planning commissioner Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin). This character is based on the real land developer Robert Moses. He was the divisive mid-twentieth century “Master Builder” who acquired vast power over public funds in New York and massive influence over the city’s infrastructure. At one point he held twelve public offices simultaneously, all appointed and none elected by the people. He was known for his knack for the disenfranchisement of minorities and the poor. It’s his men who were responsible for Frank’s murder.
At its heart, this film is a story of an underdog hero who, while looking for simple justice, becomes entangled in an epic odyssey. Taking him from gin-soaked jazz clubs in Harlem to the massive halls of New York’s corrupt power brokers. On paper, and in the trailers, it looks like this film has it all. Great production value, well-known stars, a sexy soulful jazz soundtrack, and historic New York City itself. Unfortunately, it is missing something at its core, I think it’s pacing. I’m not sure who is to blame, was it a tight budget or did the director put the reins on one of the greatest cinematographers of all time Dick Pope? All I know is that the film looks foggy and moody which is great. However, there is practically no blocking or movement in the shots. It’s mostly locked down coverage shots. This is odd because the films’ main character, Lionel, from the beginning is in constant unwanted motion. So the lack of it in the style of shooting bogs the film down. It also lacks that magic spark that similar films about specific times in a city dealing with corruption have, such as 1974’s Chinatown or 1997’s L.A. Confidential.
Motherless Brooklyn has great music and does a wonderful job of bringing 1950s New York to life on the big screen. However, it misses out on being that great film it had the potential of becoming. Still, I give it a B- rating because it is worth catching it at a matinee screening or once it’s available to Video-on-Demand.
Directed by Edward Norton
Written by Edward Norton
Selig Rating B-
Running Time 2hr 24min
Wide Release November 1st
Starring: Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Willem Dafoe, Bruce Willis
The Selig Rating Scale:
A – Excellent movie, well worth the price.
B – Good movie
C – OK movie
D – No need to rush. Save it for a rainy day.
F – Good that I saw it on the big screen but wish I hadn’t paid for it.