You’ve got to listen to the notes that they AREN’T playing…
While Motherless Brooklyn isn’t without some problematic elements, it really resembles a piece of cinematic jazz as you’ll just get more out of it if you appreciate the ride it is trying to take you on rather than nitpick some of the finer details out of it.
Set against the backdrop of 1950s New York, Motherless Brooklyn follows Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton), a lonely private detective living with Tourette Syndrome, as he ventures to solve the murder of his mentor and only friend, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Armed only with a few clues and the engine of his obsessive mind, Lionel unravels closely-guarded secrets that hold the fate of the whole city in the balance. In a mystery that carries him from gin-soaked jazz clubs in Harlem to the hard-edged slums of Brooklyn and, finally, into the gilded halls of New York’s power brokers, Lionel contends with thugs, corruption and the most dangerous man in the city to honor his friend and save the woman who might be his own salvation.
For only his second feature effort (his first was back in 2000) and his first as screenwriter (adapting the novel of the same name) Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn is reminiscent of the hard boiled noirs from which it draws. While it has moments that it tries a little too hard, it flows like a piece of jazz in a smoky nightclub that you just have ride along side in order to truly appreciate what it is.
Oddly enough this adaptation which takes us into the political scene of 50’s New York feels just as relevant today and while it all doesn’t work it’s the kind of stylish and high gloss filmmaking that gets lost in studio releases that aren’t related to a comic book.
The film has a real high sheen to it all with some immaculate production design and cinematography from the iconic Dick Pope that makes it all look well beyond its fairly modest production budget and we easily get roped into the period as Pope and Norton borrow every ‘hard-boiled’ visual motif from the noir genre that plays as an incredibly earnest love letter to the films that have come before it and if it could have I don’t doubt that the scenery and settings themselves would have uttered the words “Forget It, Jake; it’s Chinatown”.
That being said, with it only being Norton’s second feature it has some trappings where it simply tries a little too hard to lean into the genre of filmmaking that it is honoring with some obvious beats. However it all plays with such earnestly and love that you can’t help going along with it all, even in a script that needed a little trimming but much like the score from composer Daniel Pemberton and the hot jazz music of the time, you get seduced into its long and winding ride of betrayal and corruption in the mean streets of a cold city.
It all manages such a unique balance of the serious and the pulp starting at the top in a rare turn where a director leads his leading man to a really solid performance, which is even more remarkable since they were both the same man.
Playing a character with Tourettes could have easily been a disastrously campy experience but Edward Norton gives Lionel real depth, emotion and pathos as he hunts the city to find the reasons behind the death of his friend. He makes the character into a genuine every man hero that is so common in the genre and he embodies that energy exceptionally well.
Gugu Mbatha Raw is fantastic opposite him and both character do provide each other a genuine support system during a time where they both need it while Alec Baldwin chews the scenery as local politician and construction maven that might actually be a better impression of Donald Trump then the one he does on Saturday Night Live. Willem Dafoe, Leslie Mann, Bruce Willis, Bobby Cannavalle and Michael Kenneth Williams round out the ensemble nicely.
While we’ll be the first to admit that Motherless Brooklyn is a little bloated it plays into that exceptionally well and just like the long hot jazz takes of the times, if you don’t look at the watch and truly appreciate the moments that are being put on screen, then this film vaults itself into the upper echelon of films that we’ve seen this calendar year.