“Motherless Brooklyn”

Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Gabby Horowitz (Cherry Jones) are idealistic activists trying to stop a ruthless land developer — based on the real-life New York figure Robert Moses, who at one point held 12 public offices simultaneously despite never winning an election — from dominating the city in Motherless Brooklyn.
Cast: Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Dallas Roberts, Willem Dafoe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Leslie Mann, Bobby Cannavale, Fisher Stevens, Ethan Suplee, Michael Kenneth Williams, Cherry Jones |Director: Edward Norton | Rating: R, for language throughout including some sexual references, brief drug use, and violence | Running time: 2 hours, 24 minutes


Edward Norton has wanted to adapt Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn since it was first published. It’s easy to see why.

Its protagonist works for a private investigator because he has an almost superhuman recall of everything he sees or hears. Whereas most of us would have to take notes or hear something repeated, Lionel Essrog (Norton) misses nothing. But he has to take on a sidekick’s role during investigations because he’s unable to blend in with the crowd.

When Lionel’s Tourette’s syndrome flares up, he bellows in loud outbursts and uncontrollable gestures. This behavior earned him the nickname “Freakshow” in the New York orphanage where he grew up and makes his adult life a constant challenge. Chewing gum and marijuana provide him with temporary relief, but in the 1950s, the latter is challenging to obtain and illegal to use.

Norton first came to prominence — and may still be best known for — his film debut as a young man with mental health problems in 1996’s Primal Fear, so it’s tempting to see his work in Motherless Brooklyn as a return to familiar territory. But thankfully, director-screenwriter-producer Norton has chosen to do more than showcase Norton the actor. Motherless Brooklyn is loaded with dozens of intriguing characters and situations. For a movie about a seemingly dry topic like urban development, it’s a fascinating look at how the social sausage of government is made.

These operations require people such as Lionel and his boss Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) to work. In addition to finding dirt for well-connected clients, Frank also knows that his work can lead to embarrassing secrets about the people who hire him, and he’s not above a shakedown or two to supplement his firm’s bottom line.

Frank seems downright giddy about his latest assignment, but he’s coy with the rest of his crew about whom they’re tailing and why.

This creates a problem when some scary-looking characters shoot Frank.

Lionel and fellow shamus Tony (Bobby Cannavale) have only scattered clues about who Frank was pursuing and why. Because he was listening on a hidden phone line, Lionel has some important dates and names but no context. Tony understandably wants to concentrate on investigations that can lead to sure cash and won’t put the crew in danger, but Lionel feels some loyalty to his late employer. Frank was the first person who saw that Lionel had something to offer instead of annoying tics.

Lethem’s setup owes an enormous debt to Chinatown, but the depths to which people are willing to sink in order to control and exploit the future haven’t changed and probably won’t. It’s not a mystery who might have wanted Frank dead. Thankfully Norton and Lethem are more concerned with the more interesting question: why?

On the way, Lionel encounters an unelected city official (Alec Baldwin) who seems more interested in clearing out people than slums and two determined activists ( Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Cherry Jones) trying to stop him. Because race, reputations and public funds are involved, Lionel must think faster than Frank did to avoid his fate.

That’s a little difficult when your outbursts and gestures can stop you in the middle of your tracks before you can get away.

Norton’s last movie as a director, Keeping the Faith, was a breezy but enjoyable comedy. It came out 19 years ago. Here the amount and weight of his subject matter are far more demanding. His pacing is slow, but he has a lot of characters and plot that would get lost if he set things too hastily.

If the momentum sometimes sputters, Norton ably recaptures the way Manhattan looked in the Eisenhower Era. Dick Pope’s (Dark City) cinematography and Beth Mickle’s production design help keep Motherless Brooklyn just eerie enough to stay engaging.

Norton has said that he called in every favor he was owed to get this film made. He does his collaborators a solid by giving them interesting things to do, and he does a kindness to viewers by rewarding them for maintaining Lionel’s levels of alertness.

Private detective Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) has a word with his associates Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) and Gilbert Coney (Ethan Suplee) in Motherless Brooklyn, the film version of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 book that Norton has spent decades trying to make.


Arkansas Democrat Gazette MovieStyle on 11/01/2019

Print Headline: Motherless Brooklyn

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Dan Lybarger is a freelance film critic and writer whose work has appeared in The Kansas City Star, The Pitch, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Cineaste and other publications.