Motherless Brooklyn Review
Edward Norton makes a play to become a Hollywood triple-threat in 'Motherless Brooklyn.'
Release Date: November 1, 2019
MPAA Rating: R
Set against the backdrop of 1950s New York, Motherless Brooklyn follows Lionel Essrog, a lonely private detective afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome, as he ventures to solve the murder of his mentor and only friend, Frank Minna.
Director: Edward Norton
Screenwriters: Edward Norton, Jonathan Lethem
Producers: Michael Bederman, Bill Migliore, Daniel Nadler, Edward Norton, Gigi Pritzker, Rachel Shane, Robert F. Smith
Cast: Edward Norton (Lionel Essrog), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Laura Rose), Alec Baldwin (Moses Randolph), Bobby Cannavale (Tony Vermonte), Willem Dafoe (Paul), Bruce Willis (Frank Minna), Ethan Suplee (Gilbert Coney), Cherry Jones (Gabby Horowitz), Dallas Roberts (Danny Fantl), Josh Pais (William Lieberman), Michael Kenneth Williams (Trumpet Man), Robert Wisdom (Billy Rose), Nelson Avidon (Jacob Gleason)
Editor: Joe Klotz
Cinematographer: Dick Pope
Production Designer: Beth Mickle
Casting Director: Avy Kaufman
Music Score: Daniel Pemberton
Edward Norton has proven himself as one of his generation’s finest actors with varied and versatile performances in movies like Fight Club and Birdman. Almost twenty years ago he made his directorial debut with the romantic comedy Keeping the Faith. Now, he’s making a play to be a true Hollywood triple threat by writing, directing, and starring in Motherless Brooklyn.
Motherless Brooklyn is about a New York man afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome named Lionel Essrog (Norton) who, along with three of his childhood friends, works as a private investigator for a big shot named Frank Minna (Bruce Willis from Glass). When Frank is unceremoniously killed in a job-gone-bad, Lionel takes it upon himself to continue following the leads of Frank’s case, hoping it will lead him to his mentor’s murderers. As he tracks the different threads of the case, Lionel finds himself embroiled in a dangerous scheme involving a power-hungry politician named Moses Randolph (Aloha’s Alec Baldwin).
For his adaptation of Motherless Brooklyn, Edward Norton shifted the nineties setting of Jonathan Lethem’s novel to the fifties, giving the hard-boiled detective story even more of a noir feel. Both the plot and the tone owe a debt of gratitude to Chinatown, but it feels like more of an homage than a ripoff. And all neo-noir is an homage of some sort, isn’t it?
The mystery in Motherless Brooklyn is one of those enigmas that gets more complicated as its solution gets closer. The search takes Lionel from Brooklyn to Harlem, from City Hall to jazz clubs, and every time he learns something it seems to raise even more questions. The journey does get a little convoluted, and it does seem as if Norton relies a bit too much on spoken exposition in points, but that’s all part of the investigative process. The end result is satisfying enough, even if the audience has to sit through almost two and a half hours’ worth of movie to get there.
It’s important to note that the depiction of Lionel is sympathetic without being pitying. His Tourette’s pops up frequently, and it does get in the way of his living a normal life, a fact for which he is always apologizing and trying to cover up (he puts his face to his arm during outbursts like he’s trying to stifle a sneeze). But Lionel is absolutely the protagonist, and he’s a very capable one, with a fierce determination to bring his friend’s killers to justice and an eidetic memory that is just what he needs to make it happen. The fact that he gets to uncover social and civil injustice along the way is just icing on the cake. Lionel is relatable, but the audience never feels sorry for him, even when he’s getting the hell beat out of him or being thrust into uncomfortable situations. He’s a noble hero.
Motherless Brooklyn is a treat for noir fans who don’t need a whole lot of gunfights and car chases in their hard-boiled mysteries. Those who like their crimes to be uncovered nice and slow will be all in.
Edward Norton has assembled a bang-up cast for Motherless Brooklyn. In addition to Willis and Baldwin, the ensemble also includes Willem Dafoe (The Lighthouse, The Florida Project) as a mysterious street urchin protestor, Gugu Mbatha-Raw (A Wrinkle in Time, Belle) as a city employee who doubles as a love interest for Lionel, Cherry Jones (I Saw the Light, “24”) as a social activist, and Leslie Mann (Blockers, The Comedian) as Frank’s widow. Lionel’s buddies at the private investigating firm, known as the “Minna Men,” are played by Bobby Cannavale (Ant-Man, I, Tonya), Ethan Suplee (The Butterfly Effect, American History X), and Dallas Roberts (Dallas Buyers Club, Mayhem).
But Motherless Brooklyn is Norton’s movie. His portrayal as the flawed hero with a heart of gold is near-perfect. Norton nails all of the ticks and outbursts of a Tourette’s patient without ever being overbearing or annoyingly obvious with them. On top of the intricacies of the medical condition (which the character explains to others over and over again with the patience of a saint), Norton is able to subtly capture the intelligence and loyalty of Lionel, the drive and insecurity that is at the root of the character. It’s an impressive performance.
Score and Soundtrack
Since much of the movie takes place in the seedy underbelly of the Harlem jazz scene, music is an important component to Motherless Brooklyn. The original score from Daniel Pemberton (The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) is a seamless combination of period jazz and electronically manipulated looping that represents what Lionel hears in his head; music speaks to him on an emotional level, but his thoughts are fixated and repetitive. The club scenes feature original jazz music written by Pemberton and performed by acclaimed trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, with a few standards by the likes of Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus tossed in as well. And then there’s the “theme” of the movie, a lovely ballad by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke (who also scored last year’s Suspiria remake) called “Daily Battles.” All of the music in Motherless Brooklyn, even the Pemberton score and the Yorke song, has a similar jazzy vibe, so although it might seem like it would be jarring, it all fits together like a puzzle. There’s even a version of “Daily Battles” performed by Marsalis that illustrates the common sound point. It’s a brilliant soundtrack, but more importantly, it serves the overall movie well.