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USA 2019
Directed by
Edward Norton
144 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Motherless Brooklyn

Synopsis: It’s 1950s New York and Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton), a private detective with Tourette’s Syndrome must dive into a world of power and corruption in order to solve the murder of his mentor and boss, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis).

We all know that Edward Norton is a talented actor but with Motherless Brooklyn, the only film which he has directed since his directorial debut, Keeping The Faith, in 2000, he also takes the lead role as well as adapting the script from a novel by Jonathan Lethem and producing the film. It’s an impressive, if at times drawn out even stodgy, homage to the much-loved tradition of private eye movies from genre classics like The Maltese Falcon (1941) to their retro dependents such as Chinatown (1974).

Lionel Essrog is not your cool ladies' man in the Phillip Marlowe/Sam Spade manner but rather is an oddball given to involuntarily verbal outbursts and physical tics but also possessed of a photographic memory and a canny ability to focus on the issue at hand. This makes for a novel twist on the standard gumshoe anti-hero, with Lionel also possessing an atypical empathy for the characters he encounters along the way.

But this bending of the form is also what weakens Norton’s film. The tics and rhyming spasms which would presumably have receded into background consciousness in the novel remain front and centre in the film and get a little repetitive.  Norton the director is arguably a tad indulgent with Norton the star as despite his insistent Rain Man-like disability Lionel goes about his business with considerable sang-froid even attracing the affections of a winsome young black woman, Laura (English actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw) as over the course of the narrative he undergoes something close to a zero-to-hero transformation.  Scenes which imbue Lionel with gentlemanly charm such as his slow dance with Laura in her father’s jazz club are precisely the scenes which slow Motherless Brooklyn up as a genre piece. This kind of mushiness ill-fits the core themes of corruption in high places, ruthless ambition, sexual shenannigans, deception and murder which mark the genre. Norton’s dialogue at times is literary. I assume this is a carry-over from the novel but on screen it comes across as inappropriately high-brow, too archly removed from the hard-boiled banter which we all love in such fare.

Clearly Norton’s acting chops have enabled him to assemble a top drawer cast including Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin and Willem Dafoe although the ubiquitous Dafoe needs to take a break (IMDb has him slated for nine movies since this one) as his incongruously overwrought character seems to have walked off the set of the currently-screening The Lighthouse with little more re-jigging than a change of clothes.

Watching Norton’s film made we wonder how much of it should be attributed to the creative team he has put together.  Clearly English cinematographer Dick Pope is key (he and Norton presumably met on the set of The Illusionist, 2006, which Pope lensed and in which Norton starred) and the score by Daniel Pemberton, with Wynton Marsalis delivering the jazz trumpet, is also a significant contributor to its success but the overall dressing seems somewhat made-to-order. The cars are all in showroom condition, the costumes are newly tailored and neatly pressed, and the interiors over-stuffed with period knick-knacks. With so many hats (if you’ve seen the film you’ll appreciate the pun...well perhaps not) Norton must have had to delegate a considerable amount of such work and take the results on trust.

In terms of its scope and production history (Norton bought the rights to Lethem’s novel in 2000) Motherless Brooklyn is an impressively ambitious film. It doesn’t quite reach the heights it aspires to but Norton fans should be rewarded.




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