SDFF Review: ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ Realizes Edward Norton’s Detective Dreams

Aaron Neuwirth reviews the crime drama Motherless Brooklyn, Edward Norton's passion project adapted from the novel by Jonathan Lethem, which screened at the 2019 San Diego International Film Festival.

I tend to look on the positive side when an actor comes out with a passion project. Regardless of how much ego stroking may be involved, the chance an actor takes in taking a swing on a project they believe in and using their clout to round up enough of their celebrity pals, and accomplished filmmakers to work on a major studio motion picture feels like the essence of Hollywood. They don’t always work out. For every A Star Is Born, you also get a Live by Night, however, as many holes as you can poke in giving leeway to a big actor taking a wild swing, some just hit the right notes. Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn feels like a big production attempting to take some chances. It’s a bit too showy and overstuffed, but I had a good time watching it at the 2019 San Diego International Film Festival.

Based on the bestselling novel by Jonathan Lethem, which was notably set in the 90s, Norton stars as Lionel Essrog, the employee of a private investigator navigating the labyrinth of details surrounding the death of his employer in 1950s New York City. Lionel struggles with Tourette syndrome, causing him to shout and jerk around his body when things get complicated or “out of order” in some way. It’s a choice effectively giving Norton the chance to really dive into a role in the same manner that made his debut in Primal Fear stand out.

Whether or not it works is up to the viewer. Some may find it uncomfortable; I felt the film around him supported his choices as an actor. That comes from not allowing the writing to come across as an ode to hard-boiled noir. The fascination with this era comes through for sure, but Motherless Brooklyn seems content with melding 50s slang with more modern sensibilities. It makes for a heightened world that can inject a well-produced Thom Yorke song as the repeated theme throughout the feature and not feel out of place.

The plot concerns a murder, a public official serving as a master builder, gentrification, a mystery woman, family grudges, some hoodlums, and a trumpet player played by Michael K. Williams. There’s little sense to delving too far into it, as Motherless Brooklyn is the sort of film relying on the viewer’s discovery to keep up the excitement. As it stands, once Bruce Willis’ P.I. character is taken out of the picture early on, Lionel and the rest of this detective firm (Bobby Cannavale, Ethan Suplee, and Dallas Roberts) do what they can to learn what their boss was into.

All of Norton’s narration fills us in on his state of mind and what the stakes evolve into. We also have help. Willem Dafoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw trade-off in providing exposition. However, they both occupy sympathetic spaces, as well. The more we learn about the two characters they play, the more invested we ideally become in Lionel’s attempts to not only realize his potential but act as a savior. I take some issue in a 50-year-old man portraying an orphan who is only now becoming more of an adult and is also attempting to save the entire black community, but Norton keeps himself from sliding into parody.

Besides, why be concerned with the story of a man who wants to be the hero in his own mind when we can put a focus on the questionable designs Alec Baldwin’s Moses Randolph has for the city? Modeled after real-life public official Robert Moses, with this character, Norton (as writer/director) attempts to match up Randolph’s position of authority as a comment on today. It’s a stretch to a point, but the film’s style is more in league with mainstream studio blockbusters of today, as opposed to Chinatown.

Of course, Motherless Brooklyn is far more intimate than say a Michael Mann production. Norton is too earnest to let the set pieces take over, though he is quite successful in that department, as seen in a few chases the film provides. Whatever early films served as inspirations, Dick Pope’s cinematography, Joe Klotz’s editing style, and Daniel Pemberton’s jazz-infused score (with help from Wynton Marsalis) find the film operating at its own rhythm. I can’t speak to how well Norton translated Lethem’s prose to the screen, but the dialog and casting choices provide the film a snappiness to keep it compelling enough as the web is slowly untangled.

Perhaps Motherless Brooklyn meanders a bit too much without letting the emotional weight of certain scenes land in the way Norton ideally wants. At the same time, the details he wants us to see, and the mesh of old school and new school approaches to a detective story play well with what we are getting from Lionel’s state of mind. Having held onto the prospect of making this film for nearly twenty years, what Norton may lack in youthful ambition, he makes up for by matching sincerity with confidence. That self-assuredness may not build to the case of the century, but I rather liked seeing things from the unique perspective of this tormented gumshoe.

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks,, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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