Motherless Brooklyn (***) is simple and reverent

Motherless Brooklyn – 2019

Written and Directed by Edward Norton
Based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem
Starring Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Willem Dafoe, Alec Baldwin, Cherry Jones, Michael K. Williams, Bobby Cannavale, Leslie Mann, Ethan Suplee, Dallas Roberts, Robert Wisdom

A passion project for over a decade for its writer, director and star, Edward Norton, Motherless Brooklyn feels more like a tribute to better films while the acting fills the void that the plot creates. It’s a good starter film for those that don’t want to jump right into L.A. Confidential, or Chinatown without having the benefit of a story that spoon feeds the viewer.

Norton is Lionel Essrog, or the titular Motherless Brooklyn. He is suffering from undiagnosed Tourettes. He also has a photographic memory. The latter comes in handy in his work as assistant in the detective agency run by his friend, mentor and father figure, Frank Minna (Willis), who also gave him the nickname. By the end of the first act, his mentor is dead and Brooklyn is working to solve the mystery of who killed him and what they are covering up.

Along the way, he comes across Laura Rose (Mbatha-Raw), a young woman studying for the bar who is also working for the people of New York who are being removed from their homes by agencies of the mayor who are not elected and can’t be removed.

He receives assistance from Paul (Dafoe) who has a relationship with the story’s main antagonist, Moses Randolph. Randolph has more power than anyone in New York. He’s about to make a play for the biggest score in the city’s history. It has little to do with money and it has a lot to do with control.

For those looking for a mystery to the story, there will be disappointment. Anyone who has seen the afore-mentioned films will know what is going on before the end of the first scene. Norton does a good job developing characters we can care about, however. And everyone seems to have a part to play. Especially benefitting are Dafoe, Williams, Mann and Mbatha-Raw, who all have a relevance that a less character driven director may have overlooked. Adam Baldwin is most effective when he’s talking, and unfortunately we don’t see much of that until the end.

For his own performance, Norton is good, though not great. There is a lot of meat on the bone in the role of Lionel Essrog. We get flashes of brilliant awkwardness, but we also get too many well timed phrases which seem less like a syndrome and more like someone who insults people while pretending to sneeze. He is such a good actor though, it’s great to see his range as an unusually prescient private investigator with a tender heart. It would be interesting to see what he could have done with the role if all he had to do was concentrate on acting.

Overall it’s a good, not great effort. The film is enjoyable if predictable. Norton’s ability to show a clean, multi-layered view of the politics that went into creating the city he loves so dearly is entertaining. That’s enough to make one want to see what he could do without having to scrimp, save and beg to get a movie made. He’s one of the great actors of our lifetime. He’s worth the investment.

(*** out of *****)

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