Edward Norton is one of the best actors working today, but I feel like it’s been a while since I saw him as a proper leading man. This time he also takes the helm in his passion project, based on Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel of the same name. Norton plays Lionel Essrog, a lonesome private detective with Tourette Syndrome attempting to solve the murder of his mentor.
One thing I noticed right away was the stellar cast, so I was quite dumbfounded when I read on IMDb trivia that the principal major stars worked for free here. Bruce Willis payed his mentor Frank Minna whom we learn later has taken Lionel and his colleagues who worked for his detective agency under his wing. It’s clear that Lionel loved Frank, perhaps even idolized him. The film is set up like a whodunnit classic noir of the Hollywood Golden age, but it’s actually not hugely unpredictable. Lionel’s constant voiceover provides so much info to the audience that initially it was overwhelming. Thankfully over time I was fine with it and actually enjoyed the way the story unfolds. There’s kind of an unhurried pace the way Norton tells the story, hence the nearly 2.5-hour running time.
At a council meeting, Lionel’s investigation reveals a bigger connection to the city than he originally thought. I have to say that it’s not until Lionel meets a black community lawyer Laura Rose (played by the sublime Gugu Mbatha-Raw) that things started to get really interesting. Laura and her boss Gaby (Cherry Jones) are fighting gentrification in NYC where the poor and minorities are being driven out of the city by a development tycoon Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin). Baldwin relishes in playing a callous, unapologetically-corrupt, racist power broker (modeled after a real life ‘master builder’ Robert Moses) who utters lines like “Power is feeling, knowing, that you can do whatever you want, and not one fucking person can stop you,” Meanwhile, Willem Dafoe plays a rather beaten-down sort of a man who’s backed into a corner. This has been quite a year for Mr. Dafoe – his performance here might not be as memorable as the one in The Lighthouse, but he’s always fascinating to watch on screen.
As the lone female figure in a largely male cast, I absolutely adore Mbatha-Raw. I always lights up whenever I see her on screen, she’s so criminally underrated. The tentative bond between Lionel and Laura feels natural as they share something in common. Lionel friends call him ‘Freakshow’ though he’s a brilliant investigator and Laura, as a woman of color with a law degree, each have their own struggles about where they fit in. I particularly love the scene in a jazz club where Lionel slowly dances with Laura, as Michael Kenneth Williams as the Trumpet man performed on stage. It’s a sweet moment that gives us a respite from all the puzzle-solving scenarios, and it’s perhaps the first time Lionel feels ‘safe’ in the arms of a woman.
But there’s no argument that this is Norton’s film… a vehicle for his acting chops and directing endeavor. He’s in virtually every single scene… if he’s not visually on screen, his voice would be, narrating it. I find it interesting that two recent films by acclaimed actors feature characters suffering from neurological conditions. While Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck aka Joker suffers from the Pseudobulbar Affect that caused him to laugh/cry uncontrollably, Norton’s Lionel suffers from a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary tics and vocalizations where he’d compulsively utters inappropriate words like ‘tits’ in public. I can’t comment whether his portrayal of the syndrome is accurate (I read that the Tourette’s Association of America approved of the film), but his performance at times invites laughter from the audience, and I can’t help feeling guilty every time I chuckle.
Now, as for his directing chops, I think he’s a promising filmmaker, but I think this story could’ve been much more gripping when done by a veteran director. For one, a tighter editing and more dynamic pacing would make the film feels less sluggish. But considering this is his sophomore effort, I suppose it takes time for someone to hone their craft. At least this movie isn’t boring, not to me anyway. Norton has said in many interviews that he learned from past visionary directors, the likes of Milos Forman, Spike Lee, David Fincher which eventually inspired him to direct.
It’s hard not to notice some of the timely parallel of what’s going on today… the commentary about insatiable power and that the Moses character has that Trump-like, big-bully mannerism and cockiness. According to NPR, Norton actually finished writing the script before Trump came into power, when he was just a game-show host. “I would say President Trump is a game-show host also — it’s just a more damaging game that he’s playing. …” The film is also a love letter to New York, a city Norton clearly loved. The production design, set pieces, costumes, etc. are meticulously-crafted to reflect 1950s NYC, shot beautifully by Dick Pope (whom Norton worked with in The Illusionist). The scene in the train station (apparently Norton’s crew recreated the Penn Station) look magnificent, and I love the night scenes, particularly the foggy night on the Brooklyn bridge, which shows just how dramatic and atmospheric NYC nights are depicted in the movies.
I love a good mystery film that isn’t overly grim and violent, and Motherless Brooklyn certainly fits the bill. It’s not quite as riveting nor utterly brilliant as L.A. Confidential, a 1950s neo-noir that Norton reportedly admire, but this one is still an enjoyable ride. It helps that I immediately sympathizes with Lionel, which makes me invested in his quest to solve his mentor’s murder. The revelation of what the title means is memorably poignant moment, I like that Norton isn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. So despite the overlong running time, I still highly recommend this film, and I hope Norton would continue to make films in the future.
– Review by Ruth Maramis
Have you seen Motherless Brooklyn? I’d love to hear what you think.