It took 20 years for Norton to make this film. It’s worth the wait.
‘Motherless Brooklyn‘ immediately throws you into the complex world of Lionel Essrog (played by Edward Norton), a Tourettic private eye, who is investigating the death of his mentor and only friend Frank Minna (played by Bruce Willis). The film was adapted from Jonathan Lethem‘s eponymous novel. When Norton read the book, it kicked off a twenty-year journey to get it in theaters. The result is an original noir film moviegoers haven’t experienced since ‘LA Confidential.’ It’s certainly not for everyone— if you prefer to space out and wait for explosions and gratuitous nudity, you’ll be disappointed. But if you want to follow this gumshoe through the underground world of 1950s New York, sit down and stay for a while, this will be a hell of a ride.
The story’s beginning launches with a ‘French Connection’ style car chase through Harlem; it’s a refreshing sight to see heavy beasts like Chevy Bel Airs and Plymouth DeSotos race around corners like clumsy elephants. It’s the opposite of a ‘Fast and Furious’ scene— no nitrous-oxide, no Ja Rule screaming, no high-speed explosions. It feels authentic.
While the story is noir, it does a terrific job of balancing humor. There’s a scene where a beautiful blonde asks Lionel to light her cigarette. He lights one, holds it near the cigarette, and blows it out. Then he repeats this because the sound of the match didn’t feel right. The woman eventually walks away saying “Forget it.” You feel for Lionel and his condition, which makes him an odd hero of the film. Typically, noir films have the handsome detective saying something cunning— Lionel twitches and yelps.
Every Actor Delivers
Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, and Willem Dafoe are just a few actors involved in this thick web of a story. Baldwin plays a ruthless power broker named Moses Randolph. For the first ten minutes, you never see his face. Instead, the camera follows his back as he sweeps through rooms like a wrecking ball. His anger is palpable and intoxicating. It might be one of his best performances ever.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Laura Rose, an idyllic community activist, is our touchpoint to the everyday world. She is fighting gentrification, racism, despite being outmatched. There are scenes of tenderness that’ll make your eyes pool. Lionel asks if she lives alone in one scene. “You got no idea.” Laura answers.
The Music And Sound Effects Are Characters In The Film
Halfway through the movie, you’ll likely mumble, “What the fuck is going on?” and that’s perfectly okay. The original score, which is comprised of music from Wynton Marsalis, Thom Yorke of Radiohead, and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, makes you sink deep into a crime-soaked world of smoky jazz clubs and bloody back alleys.
The sound mixing is brilliant. The background noise coupled with Jazz projects the way Lionel sees the world. When the trumpets blare you know Lionel’s mind is spinning. Much like how they used jazz to personify bipolar disorder in the series ‘Homeland.’
A Reveal Unlike Any Other
Assembling the storyline in your mind is like trying to piece together shattered glass. Don’t bother. Lionel will do it for you, but not before taking a series of detours. When it does come together, you’ll be glad you stayed focused. It’s a reveal that’s satisfying to think about long after you leave the theatre.
VERDICT: ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ is a long, complex, and original story that will be detested by those seeking a cool action movie. It’s a film to watch with a stiff drink, on a dark night, with no interruptions. Get a sitter for the kids and put your phone and frisky Beagle in another room. It demands all of your patience but rewards you tenfold.