After almost two decades, Edward Norton has finally brought Jonathan Lethem’s novel “Motherless Brooklyn” to the silver screen, albeit set in New York City of 1957 instead of the 1990s. Norton directs, stars, produces --- and also wrote the screenplay for --- MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN in a very specific fashion. It’s an homage to the noir detective mysteries of years past, with a spectacular score by Daniel Pemberton.
Long-suffering from Tourette Syndrome, Lionel Essrog (Norton) was a bullied, lonely orphan when he was taken under the wing of Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), his only true friend and mentor. Minna recognized Lionel’s gift for numbers and memorizing every word he heard. He alone trusted Lionel, so when Frank is shot, Lionel takes it upon himself to find his killers, over the objections of the other partners in Frank’s agency, Tony Vermonte (Bobby Cannavale) and Danny Fanti (Dallas Roberts).
Thus begins an odyssey into the underbelly of the slums of Brooklyn and the small jazz clubs of Harlem. Other name stars include Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays Laura Rose, the woman Frank was following, Michael Kenneth Williams, a jazz trumpeter, Willem Dafoe, a down-on-his-luck architect and Alec Baldwin, a New York power broker/developer. These performances, along with the noir photography of 1957 New York by Dick Pope, create a world Norton has been dreaming about for years.
The 1950s was a great era of change for New York --- moving from the old guard to the newer, more modern version. Norton has always been fascinated by this dramatic transformation and felt that for his story, this era would be more intriguing and suitable. And it works beautifully --- MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN is a visually stunning film. From the costumes to the vintage cars and classic bath houses, Brooklyn and New York are in perfect form.
It is, however, the cast of characters who drive MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN. Norton has always been a favorite of mine --- he’s just an immensely talented actor. His untimely shrieks and sudden movements add to the depth of this Tourette victim’s tortured soul. Thankfully, in his inimitable way, Norton never overplays the affliction, and seems to find much relief as Lionel in the company of Laura.
He and Mbatha-Raw share a genuine chemistry. She’s a beautiful woman and a fine actor. Her power is in her subtlety as she slowly encourages Lionel onto the dance floor at her father’s club --- then snuggles under his chin as he battles his staccato outbursts.
Williams, who was so amazing as Chalky White on “Boardwalk Empire”, delivers a pivotal portrayal as an unlikely aide-de-camp to Lionel. And the exquisite Dafoe doesn’t disappoint. The actor goes from what we believe is a homeless agitator to the brilliant brother of a very dangerous man in a flash.
But it is Baldwin who almost steals this movie. We have become so used to only seeing him do comedy that we have virtually forgotten that he is a truly terrific dramatic thespian. His scenes, though few in number, are riveting. He commands such a presence on screen and leaves the audience begging for more.
The biggest complaint I have --- and I know David will cover this also --- is the length of MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN. At two hours and 24 minutes it is a bit too long --- and at times, too slow. It didn’t bother me as much as it did David, but the editing could have been tightened.
I love this genre --- and Bobby Cannavale. Unfortunately, he’s not in it enough either. And if you’re hoping to see a lot of Willis, fuggedaboutit. His part is really small. MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN is a very good movie with an incredible soundtrack, cast and gorgeous cinematography. Norton should be proud.
Opinion: See It Now!
Since his last major film role in BIRDMAN in 2014, Edward Norton has been largely absent from the big screen except for some voice-over work. But starring in, while also writing and directing MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN, the 50-year-old actor has again distinguished himself as Lionel Essrog, a memorable character he first came across in a novel by Jonathan Lethem in 1999. And for the past 10 years Norton has honed his screenplay and pitch to get it made.
He credits Bruce Willis, who plays Lionel’s murdered best friend Frank Minna, with a big assist in convincing investors to move forward with the project. Oscar nominees Alec Baldwin and Willem Dafoe have key roles in the film, and anything with Bobby Cannavale gets Jeanne’s vote.
Lionel has a severe case of Tourette Syndrome. Unable to control himself as his thoughts intertwine with whatever is happening, he steadfastly apologizes for his involuntary outbursts. But as the viewer, we look at his condition as an endearing part of his persona. The more we get to know Lionel, the better we like him. As he searches intensely for Minna’s killer, it is easy to root for his success. Lionel also becomes romantically linked to a beautiful African-American lawyer and activist, Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), which in 1950’s New York City is not exactly universally accepted. Lionel’s relationship with Laura is affecting and believable.
Baldwin plays city developer and big shot Moses Randolph, whose racist views inspire Rose and Lionel into action. Baldwin’s character is loosely based on Robert Moses, a real-life New York City developer who founded the Central Park Zoo, among many other achievements, but whose racist tendencies and lust for power undermined his accomplishments. Known for his recent comic Trump impersonations, Baldwin can play a SOB with the best of them, and he doesn’t disappoint as Randolph. Any comparisons to Randolph and the current “POTUS” are purely coincidental.
The rest of the cast is first-rate. Cannavale is consistently a strong screen presence, here as one of Lionel’s fellow gumshoes, Tony Vermonte. We’re not sure of his motives in this film until much later in the story. Cannavale, with his rugged good looks, has a knack for eliciting audience adoration in his characters, but he can also reverse that in an instant.
I always get a kick out of Ethan Supplee, here playing Gilbert Coney, also a detective with Lionel and Tony. Supplee is a recognizable supporting
actor --- you just don’t know his name. I think moviegoers tend to identify with his characters, except for his 300-pound frame, as a regular guy. In MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN, he is Lionel’s partner/driver and he gets the film off to a good start with his interactions with Willis’ Frank Minna. But as the story moves on Supplee’s role disappears.
Of special interest is the fact that Norton’s maternal grandfather, James Rouse, credited as the inventor of the modern shopping mall, created The Enterprise Foundation to benefit lower-income people in terms of affordable housing. Norton is a Lifetime Trustee of the foundation, and his involvement therein certainly influenced his writing of MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN.
At nearly 2 ½ hours, MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN is too long. Thirty minutes could have been edited without damage to the finished product. I can think of more compelling crime dramas, but Norton’s film can stand on its own merit, largely due to his own performance. Whatever MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN lacks in real suspense is made up for with Norton’s ingenious portrayal.
Opinion: Mild See It Now!