“MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN”: Twitching and sleuthing”

Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Edward Norton


My rating: C+ (Opens wide on Nov. 1) | 144 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Published October 31, 2019 by Robert W. Butler at Butler’s Cinema Scene

It’s easy enough to understand why an actor of Edward Norton’s capabilities — or even an actor of lesser capabilities — would jump at the chance to portray Lionel Essrog,  the central character of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn.

Lionel lives in NYC and works in private investigations. He has a photographic memory. He’s smart.

And, oh yeah, he’s got Tourette’s syndrome, which leads to involuntary squawking, head jerking and explosions of inappropriate language. Not to mention a sense of social isolation. The poor schlub has never been in a love affair.

In other word’s, Lionel is an actor’s feast.

Wish Norton had left it at that.  For “Motherless Brooklyn” he also serves as scriptwriter and director (only his second behind-the-camera outing since 2000’s”Keeping the Faith”) and one cannot help but feel he was pulled too many ways, that his first love here is a character that he can really chow down on and that most everything else is an afterthought.

It’s not exactly a vanity project — too many big names and skilled artists are involved for that — but one can only wonder what would have happened with someone else calling the shots.

As screenwriter Norton has worked some major changes…for starters he sets the story in the early 1950s rather than the 1999 of the novel (the better to milk the yarn’s noir elements).  The tale still pivots on the murder early on of Lionel’s boss, legendary private eye Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), but in this retelling solving the crime leads not to underworld heavyweights but to governmental malfeasance.

You see, though it’s set 60 years ago, “Motherless” has a very contemporary view of politics.

Radiating arrogant malevolence, Alec Baldwin co-stars as Moses Randolph, a behind-the-scenes mover and shaker inspired by  Robert Moses, the real-life New York public official who for decades served as the powerful “master builder” of the modern city despite never having been elected to any office.

Our twitching hero’s investigation leads him to Laura, a beautiful African American lawyer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), her thuggish nightclub-owner stepfather (Robert Wisdom), and a cool-blowing jazz trumpeter (Michael Kenneth Williams) rather obviously inspired by Miles Davis.

We also meet Lionel’s gumshoe co-workers, portrayed by Bobby Canavale, Ethan Suplee, and Dallas Roberts.

Alec Baldwin in “Motherless Brooklyn.”

Then there are the thugs bent on seeing that Frank Minna’s murder remains unsolved (Fisher Stevens, Radu Spinghel), not to mention a shadowy political agitator (Willem Dafoe) and a crusading lady pol (Cherry Jones) in Elizabeth Warren mode.

Jones’ lady agitator isn’t the film’s only political doppleganger. Norton punches a few more hot buttons by blending into Baldwin’s Randolph elements of Donald Trump (often portrayed by Baldwin on TV’s “Saturday Night Live”) and especially Trump’s ruthless father.

Randolph, Lionel learns,  specializes in trashing black neighborhoods so that they can be condemned for his big-ego building projects (the Trumps, of course, have been regularly accused of racism). Even more pointed is Randolph’s description of a sexual conquest, declaring that  “I moved on her.” This, of course, is a phrase made immortal by our Prez in the Billy Bush “Access Hollywood” tape.

These are a lot a characters, ideas and plot points to keep effortlessly in the air; small wonder the film only intermittently comes to life.  The running time is another issue…almost 2 1/2 hours. Your classic noir movie clocked in at a terse 80 to 90 minutes…”Motherless Brooklyn” approaches “Ben-Hur” level ass-numbing.

Still, there are some terrific moments here.  Baldwin is like  a gourmand working his way through a five-star meal; the man clearly relishes the words Norton has provided (Randolph has the film’s best monologues) and creates an indelible character.

And in the midst of the mystery, corruption and conflict, Norton delivers an absolutely exquisite sequence in a smoky jazz club where, while dancing with the delectable Laura to a bluesy romantic tune, he finds his tics and spasms calmed by being in her arms. It’s all played out wordlessly…words would only get in the way.

At the center of the film is Norton’s Lionel, a sort of lonely crusader bent on discovering the truth if only to say he tried. It would be easy to go overboard with the Tourette’s symptoms; Norton employs them judiciously, allowing us to see the man behind the jerking and vocal eruptions.

Production values are solid, though Daniel Pemberton’s musical score tries too hard to find an aural equivalent to Lionel’s neurological upheavals and ends up veering into headache territory.

| Robert W. Butler

Read the original review and more reviews at Butler’s Cinema Scene

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Robert W. Butler for 41 years reviewed films for the Kansas City Star. In May 2011 he was downsized.

He couldn’t take the hint.

OKAY, so here’s the deal. I write mostly about movies. One good thing about no longer writing for the paper is that I’m free to ignore the big dumb Hollywood turkeys that don’t interest me. So don’t expect every blessed release to be written about here. Many films aren’t worth the effort. Besides, at my age it’s not the $8. It’s the two hours.

UPDATE: OCTOBER, 2014: Well, here’s an interesting twist. The Star wants me back as a freelance film reviewer!!! Apparently enough time has passed that they cannot be accused of firing me so that they can rehire me at a fraction of my original pay (I gather the federal government frowns upon that practice.) So from now on I will probably be reviewing a movie a week for the newspaper.