HomeMovies'Motherless Brooklyn' Review: A Very Ambitious Detective Story

‘Motherless Brooklyn’ Review: A Very Ambitious Detective Story

Motherless Brooklyn
Photo Credit: Warner Bros

Written by Ben Murchison

Motherless Brooklyn, adapted from Jonathan Lethem’s novel of the same name, is Edward Norton’s passion project and took nearly two decades to come to fruition. It follows Lionel (Norton), a detective with Tourette’s Syndrome, seeking to solve the murder of his boss and best friend, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). He changed much of the story, including the time in which it is set, to give out a more authentic backdrop of 1950’s New York City. While the time period may have been changed, the underlying story of power and corruption is applicable today and seen throughout history.

As Lionel begins to unravel the mystery that got Frank killed and how it is tied to crooked city planner Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin)–a clear nod to Robert Moses–he grows close to the last person Frank was following: Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who is organizing against the gentrification of the city displacing black families. Mbatha-Raw is an actress who is definitely on the rise and destined for even bigger roles. She is endearing and injects the film with emotion that it otherwise lacks.

The sheer fact that a film on this scale was able to be made on a budget of just $26M and in just 45 days is a testament to Norton’s fortitude in realizing his vision and to the amount of his A-list friends willing to work for cheap. Bobby Cannavale fills his role as only he can, Willem Dafoe commands attention, as always, and Baldwin talks about power in a way that chills you to the core as you hang on every despicable word. Having such a talented supporting cast helps to alleviate some of the burden that comes when you choose to write, direct, produce and star in any film—let alone one in which you have the responsibility of portraying a character with a disorder.

Tourette Syndrome involves repetitive movements or making of unwanted sounds and has most often been comedically depicted in film. In contrast, the syndrome differentiates Motherless Brooklyn from being just another detective story. The nature of the syndrome is distracting, making it risky to include. Norton spent time meeting with members of the Tourette’s Association of America to prepare, and, ultimately, they approved of the film. Lionel doesn’t simply display the tic when it is convenient for storytelling, he does so consistently. While his outbursts early in the film could almost be considered jump scares in quiet moments, eventually, you grow accustomed to them throughout the taxing 144-minute runtime.

Lionel’s erratic outbursts aren’t as odd as the reactions from those he interacts with. Outside of some gentle ribbing by his co-workers, everyone seems to accept, ignore or, in the case of Laura, be enamored with it and his general explanation. There were awkward moments, but his condition didn’t create any major fallout or problems, which seems irrational based on both how little was known about the disease at the time and the types of people he encounters. In some ways, these relatively subdued reactions lessen its credibility.

Frank’s murder in the film’s opening serves as the catalyst for Lionel’s involvement in the events to follow, so Willis’s screen time is short-lived, but so are most other recognizable actors, whose characters don’t suffer the same fate. Leslie Mann playing Frank’s wife, Julia, seems out place, largely because her character’s involvement adds nothing to the film outside of a minor sub-plot that adds unnecessary minutes. Michael Kenneth Williams is one of the most fascinating actors to watch on screen, so his role as a jazz musician is welcomed, but the pacing of the film is again stalled by extended cuts of his band’s performance. There are too many examples of things, even a telegraphed plot twist, that could have been removed without impacting the core story.

Speaking of things that could have been removed, not only from this film but perhaps all films, are the “artistic” dream sequences where characters fall into water. Motherless doubled down with another ugly sequence on a bridge of Frank giving Lionel clues from beyond the grave. Both are out of place and visually not as appealing as the convincing New York setting. While these scenes are bad, they don’t undo the otherwise good work done by cinematographer Dick Pope. The cars and clothes do half the work, but the way scenes are shot complete the film noir appearance.

The jazz-based score created for the film really drives the last act, managing to create tension and give the illusion that everything is fast approaching a conclusion. The last act is indeed the film’s strongest and delivers the best from Norton, Mbatha-Raw, and especially Baldwin.

Motherless Brooklyn is a very ambitious film attempting to bring light to the transgressions that helped build New York, as well as draw comparisons to current events, all wrapped within a detective story. While it’s far from a classic, Norton should be applauded for seeing his dream through—even if that dream could use some more editing.

Motherless Brooklyn is currently playing in theaters nationwide.

Ben Murchison
Ben Murchison
Ben Murchison is a regular contributor for TV and Movies. He’s that guy that spends an hour in an IMDb black hole of research about every film and show he watches. Strongly believes Buffy the Vampire Slayer to be the best show to ever exist, and that Peaky Blinders needs more than 6 episodes per series. East Carolina grad, follow on Twitter and IG @bdmurchison.

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