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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Dan's Review: "Motherless Brooklyn" is a Nice Facsimile of Good Film Noir

Nov 02, 2019 12:43AM ● By Dan Metcalf

Alec Baldwin and Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn - © 2019 Warner Bros.

Motherless Brooklyn (Warner Bros.)

Rated R for language throughout including some sexual references, brief drug use, and violence.

Starring Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones, Michael K. Williams, Leslie Mann, Ethan Suplee, Dallas Roberts, Josh Pais, Robert Wisdom, Fisher Stevens.

Written by Edward Norton, based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem.

Directed by Edward Norton.



The book is always better than the movie, they say. I tend to agree in most cases, yet some movies are so bad you have to wonder how they could be any better in print form. When a filmmaker loves a book, they often think it’s the perfect project to adapt into a movie. Maybe that’s what happened to Edward Norton when he read Jonathan Lethem’s novel Motherless Brooklyn, the story of a private detective with Tourette’s Syndrome and an Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, set in the 1950s. He directs, adapted the screenplay and stars as Lionel, the main character.

Lionel is a protégé of Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), a WWII veteran who’s a pretty good private eye. During an investigation involving a few shady NYC officials, things go south, and Frank is killed, but not before sharing a few clues with Lionel, whose afflictions also give him a photographic memory. After Frank’s death, the private investigations company is left to his less-than-grieving widow Julie (Leslie Mann), under the direction of Tony (Bobby Cannavale), who instructs Lionel to ignore any thought of investigating Frank’s death. Lionel ignores the warning and goes out in search of Frank’s killers. He’s led to a sinister plot designed to hide the past of a very powerful city official named Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), who is trying to demolish poor black neighborhoods to make way for giant developments. Meanwhile, Moses’ brother Paul (Willem Dafoe) is working to blackmail Randolph and other shady officials with information regarding a mixed-race civil rights worker named Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). As Lionel gets closer to the truth, the danger increases and his relationship with Laura intensifies. Lionel is forced to come up with a plan that protects Laura Rose and himself from the clutches of Randolph’s corrupt regime.    

There are some qualities of Motherless Brooklyn that I really like. First is the production design, art direction, and cinematography that perfectly captures the look and feel of 1950s NYC. Second is the crafty dialogue, delivered by a good ensemble, even though the story is pretty weak. I also feel obligated to suggest that Alec Baldwin might try playing someone other than Donald Trump for a change (har, har). Third, there’s the film editing that can (at times) be brilliant, especially during a scene involving jazz music juxtaposed with Lionel’s Tourette’s ticks as he develops a relationship with Laura Rose.

The trouble with Motherless Brooklyn is its less-than-conspicuous attempt to mimic film noir, without actually qualifying as a quality part of the genre. There’s the snappy dialogue, old cars, guys in trench coats+fedoras, and a minor amount of intrigue – but not much mystery in a story that seems like it was ripped from any random cookie-cutter Mickey Spillane pulp fiction. It’s as if you’ve just visited a theme park recreation of a noir movie; a fun and interesting immersion into a mood, albeit a facsimile. If you can see the “big reveal” coming ten minutes into the movie, the “mystery” is lost pretty fast.

I’m sure Edward Norton has talent as a writer/producer/director and I hope he can find another project with more authentic source material in the future. Perhaps it would be better if he didn’t put so much of himself into the project, as Motherless Brooklyn comes across as pure vanity. That’s not to say watching Norton perform isn’t enjoyable, but in the case of this immersive experience, we don’t have much choice in the matter. In the case of Motherless Brooklyn, it’s all Ed, all the time, and it gets a little exhausting, even though you feel obligated to recognize his talent.     

"Motherless Brooklyn" Trailer