Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn

2019, R, 144 min. Directed by Edward Norton. Starring Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis, Willem Dafoe, Cherry Jones, Bobby Cannavale, Dallas Roberts, Ethan Suplee, Josh Pais, Leslie Mann, Fisher Stevens, Peter Lewis, Robert Ray Wisdom, Michael Kenneth Williams, Radu Spinghel.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 1, 2019

Edward Norton stars as an unconventional protagonist: Lionel Essrog, a private detective whose tics and strange vocalizations are caused by Tourette syndrome. Norton directs himself and a strong cast in this ambitious endeavor as well as having written the screenplay, which is an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s acclaimed 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn. Strikingly, Norton swaps Lethem’s Nineties vibe for a Fifties film noir setting, a milieu into which this tangled gumshoe tale slips quite comfortably.

Lionel's disorder makes him an unlikely hero since his bodily tics and bizarre and uncontrollable vocal utterances keep him at a distance from polite society, where he’s either shunned or embarrassed (his nickname is Freakshow). He’s comfortable working in the shadows for his boss and sponsor Frank Minna (Willis, solid in what amounts to little more than a cameo), the owner of the detective agency who plucked Lionel from an orphanage at the age of 12 and was kind and groomed him for the job because of the boy’s peerless memory. During the film’s opening sequence, a voiceover by Lionel familiarizes us with the character’s peculiarities, while the action concludes with Frank’s murder, a mysterious event that kicks into motion Lionel’s quest for answers. His fractious brain won’t rest until he puts the puzzle’s pieces together.

The plot is a gnarly mystery that’s anchored by a Robert Moses-like figure (an urban planner known as the “master builder” of mid-20th century New York) named Moses Randolph (Baldwin), as well as a Harlem jazz club and a civic uprising about housing policies which target black and brown people for evacuation, in addition to building projects that further the social separation of races and classes. It is here that the film’s themes remind us of both the power-mongers of film noir and the Trump administration of today.

Although Norton’s film can be frustratingly vague at times, and is overly long at two hours and some change, it is also undeniably fresh, topical, and intriguing. At its worst, you’ll be scratching your head as if you were trying to follow the plot fragments in The Big Sleep. At its best, however, you’ll be reminded of Chinatown in the way that the covert dealings of a major city’s power players can have latent and pernicious effects on its citizens.

If the screenplay pulls at threads that don’t always pay off, the actors and the thoughtful cinematography of veteran Dick Pope always ensure that there’s something engaging to watch onscreen. A sequence set in the jazz club, during which the jumpy music and Lionel’s mental and physical state merge into an intuitive singularity, is a real standout. Motherless Brooklyn may have no solid direction home, but it indeed walks the walk of a movie that knows the way.

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Motherless Brooklyn, Edward Norton, Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis, Willem Dafoe, Cherry Jones, Bobby Cannavale, Dallas Roberts, Ethan Suplee, Josh Pais, Leslie Mann, Fisher Stevens, Peter Lewis, Robert Ray Wisdom, Michael Kenneth Williams, Radu Spinghel

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