The new film Motherless Brooklyn has been a passion project for writer, director, and star Edward Norton for years. Norton optioned the rights from the Jonathan Lethem novel of the same name shortly after it was published in 1999, and has worked tirelessly to bring the story of Lionel Essrog to the big screen. Finally, Norton’s perseverance paid off and the film opens this weekend.
Motherless Brooklyn is a throw back of sorts to the classic Hollywood P.I. films — this time with an interesting twist. Lionel (Norton) is not your classic gumshoe, as he has Tourettes syndrome, which makes his investigation that much harder. This coupled with the fact that, like some of the best, most classic movies in the genre, not everything is as it seems to both Lionel and the audience. Motherless Brooklyn takes pages from both L.A. Confidential and even Chinatown by using historical events and locations as the basis for the investigation. This time trading the west coast for 1950s New York.
Lionel Essrog (Norton) is a member of Frank Minna’s (Bruce Willis) crew, known as Minna’s Men. They work as a car service and part-time private detective agency. Frank also has his hands in some shady business, and when one of his deals goes south, and Frank ends up dead, it’s up to his protege to solve the murder.
As Lionel digs deeper into what Frank was working on, he uncovers conspiracies and dealings that point to the highest order of New York City government, particularly the Borough Authority and its head, Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin). Lionel has to stay alive long enough to get to the bottom of the conspiracy and finally understand who killed Frank and why.
To say that the Lethem novel is better than the film is a grievous understatement. The book explored the characters more than Norton could in the film’s run time, and yet Motherless Brooklyn still feels exceptionally long.
It’s almost as if, when writing the script, Norton made some poor choices in what to keep and what to cut in the narrative, and the end result leaves a story with some bare characters. One of the biggest sacrifices made involves the father/son-like relationship between Frank and young Lionel. This is important to drive why Lionel is so determined to solve his murder.
Most of the backstory is barely hinted at, and not just between Frank and Lionel, but between Lionel and the other Minna Men: Tony (Bobby Cannavale), Gilbert (Ethan Suplee), and Danny (Dallas Roberts). These guys have known each other since they were all wayward kids at a Catholic orphanage when Frank took them in.
It’s a shame, as the cast is stacked from top to bottom with exceptional talent, many of which rise above the failings of the script to bring the audience into the mystery.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw (from the award-winning Black Mirror episode, “San Junipero”) is a good example of this. Her Laura Rose has many layers, and she is the fulcrum from which the entire story of Motherless Brooklyn is balanced. Mbatha-Raw serves as more than the one dimension that Norton wrote for her, and plays the role of Laura well.
Willem Dafoe pays Paul, a man with knowledge of the truth, but one too scared to bring it to light. Baldwin’s Moses Randolph is a big man, both in stature and in the power he wields. These two actors both elevate the production, with Baldwin turning in an unforgettable performance as the connected heavy from which all revolves.
Norton was born to play Lionel Essrog, and that might be why he snatched up those film rights years ago. He never plays the Tourettes for laughs, even though some of his ticks will make the audience chuckle. Much like a classic literary or Hollywood PI might have a drinking problem, a gambling problem, or a dame problem they have to overcome to solve their case, Lionel has as issue that he has to work against. The difference in Motherless Brooklyn is that he also uses his affliction to his benefit, as his memory is eidetic and he can recall everything he hears — a “super power” that all detectives need.
The music in Motherless Brooklyn is heavy on big band jazz, with lots of trumpet and sax, and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke even contributed a song to the soundtrack. Oddly enough, his song fits right in to a film that takes place in the early ’50s. The score is definitely a high point in the film, and it helps set the mood from first frame to the last.
It might be cliche to say that Hollywood just doesn’t make films like Motherless Brooklyn any more, but its true. This is classic Film Noir, with nods to all of the films and stories that came before it. Lethem set out at the end of the last century to write a classic hard-boiled detective story and he succeeded. Now, Edward Norton has set out to make the classic hard-boiled detective film and he also fulfilled his goal as well.
It’s not without flaws, but taken as a whole and seeing its place in the pantheon of great films in this genre, Motherless Brooklyn fits in nicely with some of the bigger Noir films, and some could even argue that Norton has made this generation’s Chinatown, which is the biggest compliment I can give it.
Motherless Brooklyn is rated R and is in theaters now.