Motherless Brooklyn




Edward Norton branches out in this remarkable but imperfect film.

Motherless Brooklyn

Edward Norton

This adaptation of Jonathan Lethem's successful novel which appeared in 1999 is an ambitious project by its star Edward Norton. It not only sees him taking a second stab at directing (the first came in 2000 with Keeping the Faith) but also marks his first screenplay. For the first two-thirds at least the results are more than promising, and the material - the tale is set in New York in the 1950s - is arresting.


At the outset, Motherless Brooklyn carries an echo of the classic gumshoe thrillers of the 1940s. Norton himself has what is very much the central role, that of a man named Lionel Essrog who is assisting a private investigator, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who had become his mentor and who had in common with him earlier experiences when both men served in the Second World War. Minna has kept to himself the nature of his present investigations, but they lead to his death and Lionel's closeness to Frank causes him to go all out to discover what these investigations were in order to expose who killed him.


Lionel's enquiries soon threaten his own safety but reveal that Frank had unearthed secret information about a construction chief (Alec Baldwin). This man has become key to plans to push through slum clearance leading to radical and very profitable reconstruction work. As an exposé of corruption in high places, the film starts to take on a deeper, more significant tone as in some of the films of Sidney Lumet. Indeed, one wonders if Lethem in writing the novel had found inspiration in the real life story of Jane Jacobs who was featured in the 2016 documentary Citizen Jane: Battle for the City that focused on her opposition to the New York City planner Robert Moses.


This is not material that necessarily calls out for a long film but Motherless Brooklyn lasts for 144 minutes. One reason for this is that Norton's screenplay takes the time to present believable characters as opposed to the standard figures that often feature in thrillers and he has a very talented cast to support this approach - the people that Lionel comes across are played by the likes of Gugu M'Batha Raw, Willem Dafoe, Michael Kenneth Williams and Bobby Cannavale. Furthermore, Norton's direction shows immense skill in that field, there is an interesting use of music to fit both the time and the mood and he has the services of an expert photographer in our own Dick Pope. Ultimately, the film may seem on the long side, but the problem that arises is less one of length than of a serious falling off in the standard of the material. Since I have not read the novel, I cannot say how much of this comes from the original, but here the final third loses the distinction found earlier including a very sympathetic handling of the fact that our hero is a man refusing to be disheartened by the fact that he is suffering from Tourette's syndrome. But come the last third and we have Lionel racing to save a life in an intercut sequence that abandons subtlety for cliché and is then topped off by yet another cliché. What was measuring up to be a very impressive work ends up in banality but that fact, disappointing as it is, does nothing to alter the fact that when at its best Motherless Brooklyn is something special.




Cast: Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Gugu M'Batha Raw, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Kenneth Williams, Leslie Mann, Ethan Suplee, Cherry Jones, Dallas Roberts, Josh Pais, Robert Ray Wisdom, Fisher Stevens, Peter Lewis, Deborah Unger.


Dir Edward Norton, Pro Michael Bederman, Bill Migliore, Daniel Nadler, Edward Norton, Rachel Shane and Gigi Pritzker, Screenplay Edward Norton, from the novel by Jonathan Lethem, Ph Dick Pope, Pro Des Beth Mickle, Ed Joe Klotz, Music Daniel Pemberton, Costumes Amy Roth.


Class 5 Films/MWM Studios/Warner Bros. Pictures-Warner Bros.
144 mins. USA. 2019. Rel: 6 December 2019. Cert. 15.