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New Release Review - MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN

motherless brooklyn review
A detective hunts down his mentor's killers.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Edward Norton

Starring: Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, Bobby Cannavale, Leslie Mann

motherless brooklyn poster




Edward Norton's directorial debut, 2000's Keeping the Faith, was exactly the sort of movie you expect from an actor making their bow behind the camera, a low-key character driven comedy. 19 years later, his second movie as director, an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem's cult novel Motherless Brooklyn, couldn't be more different. It's a sprawling, ambitious work that sees Norton transpose Lethem's contemporary setting to the 1950s. I'm glad Norton made that decision, as the film's period dressing is its greatest asset.

The title refers to the nickname given to former street kid Lionel Essrog (Norton) by his mentor, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), a private detective who took Lionel under his wing. Lionel is dogged by Tourette syndrome and OCD, but he boasts a gift for remembering details, and so Frank employs him as a sort of human tape recorder. When Frank is shot dead while meeting some shady types he's been doing investigative work for, Lionel vows to track down his killers, and uncovers a web of conspiracy that, as is so often the case with these stories, stretches all the way to City Hall!!!

motherless brooklyn review


Portraying a disability on screen was for many years a surefire way for an actor to make a cynical pitch for awards glory, but in recent times it's become something of a taboo, now viewed by many as akin to blackface (though of course Hollywood has yet to begin casting the disabled in major roles). This raises the question of who is more qualified to portray a character with a disability - an established able-bodied actor or a less experienced disabled performer? Personally I believe this varies from case to case, and in many instances you can only cast the former, as if a character begins the movie as able-bodied and then becomes disabled, that usually rules out casting the latter (e.g. Joaquin Phoenix in Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot).

[ READ MORE: New Release Review - The Party's Just Beginning ]

In the case of Motherless Brooklyn however, there's no excuse (beyond the obvious financial implications) for not casting an actor with the conditions Norton portrays. Norton is a fine actor, but whenever his TS kicks in, it feels scripted, whereas an actor with the affliction would have added a verisimilitude to this aspect of the character. There's something all too convenient about Essrog's uncontrolled outbursts, as they never seem to happen when another character needs to deliver a chunk of exposition, which occurs a lot in this over-written film. Essrog's OCD is an interesting visual flourish that Norton seems to forget about for most of the film.

motherless brooklyn review


Remove Essrog's condition and you're left with a run of the mill detective story. We're told Essrog has an obsessive eye for details, but he neglects to take note of the registration number of the car driven by Frank's killers, which would have made this 2.5 hour movie a lot shorter. What we have here is a very simple story with an overly complicated plot, as Essrog chases numerous red herrings down narrative dead ends.

[ READ MORE: New Release Review - Knives Out ]

The detective genre has always been known for its labyrinthine plots, many of which don't hold up to scrutiny (none more so than The Big Sleep, which even author Raymond Chandler had to admit he couldn't make sense of), but it's also known for its larger than life characters. That's ultimately Motherless Brooklyn's failing - we simply don't care enough about Essrog's investigation and the various people it brings him into contact with.

motherless brooklyn review


Norton's very Hollywood brand of liberalism pervades his film, with Essrog's African-American platonic love interest (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) veering the story into white saviour territory, while Alec Baldwin's rich asshole stereotype is so clearly designed to evoke Donald Trump that it's impossible to take him seriously. Only Michael Kenneth Williams as a rough and ready trumpet player, not so subtly based on Miles Davis, livens up the proceedings, making us wish the film had placed him front and centre.

On the subject of music, Motherless Brooklyn boasts the year's most gorgeous score, a collaboration between Wynton Marsalis, Daniel Pemberton and Thom Yorke. Like Dick Pope's elegant cinematography and the stunning period recreation, it adds a layer of mahogany varnish that covers up the narrative balsa wood that Norton has constructed his flimsy yarn from.

Motherless Brooklyn is in UK/ROI cinemas December 6th.




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