Time: 144 Minutes
Edward Norton as Lionel Essrog
Bruce Willis as Frank Minna
Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Laura Rose
Alec Baldwin as Moses Randolph
Willem Dafoe as Paul
Bobby Cannavale as Tony Vermonte
Cherry Jones as Gabby Horowitz
Director: Edward Norton
Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) is a lonely private detective who doesn’t let Tourette’s syndrome stand in the way of his job. Gifted with a few clues and an obsessive mind, Lionel sets out to solve the murder of Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) — his mentor and only friend. Scouring the jazz clubs and slums of Brooklyn and Harlem, Essrog soon uncovers a web of secrets while contending with thugs, corruption and the most dangerous man in the city.
I had heard about Motherless Brooklyn for a while, I knew that Edward Norton was directing it, I saw that it had a good cast, and it also was a detective story, which I generally like. I heard it received some mixed reactions, but I was still interested in seeing it whenever I could. Motherless Brooklyn was one of the biggest surprises of the year for me, even if aspects of the script could’ve been slightly improved.
This film is based off a novel of the same name, with the plot in that being based in the 90s but Norton decided to make the shift towards the 50s for the film. Watching the movie, I couldn’t imagine this story being set in any other time period, it seemed like it was tailor made for that decade. As a mystery detective movie, I really liked it, with twists and revelations sprinkled throughout the plot. I was interested in what was going on, even when it was generally moving at a slower pace. This is a long movie at 2 hours and 25 minutes, and it feels a little too long, even if I was invested throughout. The central detective mystery story is interesting, but occasionally it gets a little side-tracked with other aspects. There are some background elements in here that needed to be fleshed out a little more, and some of the supporting characters needed to be developed a little more. I can see how some would find the ending to be anti-climatic, but for a conclusion to the story, I liked it.
This movie has a pretty great main cast, with Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, and Willem Dafoe making up the main cast. Norton gives one of his best performances as protagonist Lionel Essrog. It’s a very believable and emotional performance, on the whole he’s great. There’s just one aspect with him that not everyone is going to be on board with, and it is his portrayal of Tourette’s syndrome. It definitely feels overplayed at times, but you settle into it after a while, and for the most part it isn’t overused throughout the movie. Mbatha-Raw is also great, definitely a supporting player, but there is so much nuance and compassion in her performance that she doesn’t let herself get forgotten, she played her role really well. Willis is good but he’s basically a cameo, despite the whole movie surrounding his character’s death. Dafoe is also typically great, and probably even elevated his character with his performance. Baldwin has played many villainous characters, but this role is probably one of his most believable and intimidating, and he really gives a strong performance here and got many chances to shine.
This is the first film I’ve seen directed by Edward Norton and he’s done a great job with it. Motherless Brooklyn really embraces all the noire elements, from the typical shots seen in the genre, the production design, to the music, and to the protagonist speaking their thoughts over a voiceover. It might seem a little overbearing or blatant at first, but you get used to it after a while, especially if you get wrapped up in the world that the story and the characters exist in. It has some truly stunning cinematography by Dick Pope, and the score by Daniel Pemberton is also one of the standouts of the year, a jazz based score that you really could imagine being in a classic noire. All of these elements work together to get you into the atmosphere and overall story.
Motherless Brooklyn is clearly a movie that hasn’t really worked for everyone, and it isn’t going to join the ranks of other classic noires like Chinatown or L.A. Confidential, but I actually thoroughly liked it. There are a couple aspects of the script that’s not so great, it can feel slightly bloated and a little messy. On the whole though I thought it was great, with some effective performances, an interesting story, and was directed well by Norton. Definitely worth seeing whenever you can.