Motherless Brooklyn (2019) ****

December 4th, 2019
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Edward Norton; Cast: Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alex Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, Leslie Mann Bobby Cannavale, Robert Wisdom, Ethan Suplee, Dallas Roberts Josh Pais; USA 2019, 144′.

US audiences and critics have been rather harsh with Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn. Many expected more, and now feel short-changed because Motherless is not Chinatown. Sure, Norton has not created a classic – but something special. As for the length, like Scorsese’s Irishman, Motherless has the feel of a TV mini-series.

Norton acquired the rights to Jonathan Letham’s novel of the same name in 1999, when it was published. It took him nearly twenty years to be its writer, director and star. He changed the timeframe – contemporary in the case of the novel – to the 1950s, but kept the main theme, gentrification and the hero, PI Lionel Essrog, who suffers from Tourette syndrome, when nobody had a name for it.

Frank Minna (Willis) runs a detective agency in NY with four younger men he has rescued from the orphanage: Lionel (Norton); Tony (Vermonte); Danny (Roberts) and Gilbert (Suplee). Frank never calls Lionel by his name, he is the titular Motherless Brooklyn. Frank is on a dangerous mission, and Gilbert and Danny listen to the phone, because Frank is taping the conversation. Tony and Lionel are in hot pursuit of Frank, but can only witness when he is shot and  dies later in hospital. For Lionel revenge is a matter of honour, and he finds the first clues when he meets the black anti-gentrification lawyer Laura Rose (Mbatha-Raw). She introduces him to his father Billy (Wisdom), who runs a Jazz-club. Billy mistakes Lionel, who poses as a newspaper journalist, for one of the henchman of developer Moses Randolph (Baldwin), and has him beaten up. When he finds out the truth he agrees to meet Lionel to tell more. But he is murdered, his death staged as a suicide. Lionel saves Laura’s life and meets Randolph’s brother Paul (Dafoe), an architect. Laura tells Lionel that Paul is her real father – but when Lionel discovers Frank had tried to blackmail City Commissioner William Lieberman (Pais), because the latter wanted more money for his services from Moses Randolph, all assumptions he had made prove to be false.

Lionel is not the only motherless person: Laura grieves about the loss of her own parent, and like in all noir films, the oedipal motive is also centre stage: in this case Tony sleeping with Frank’s wife Julia (Mann). Lionel is a throw-back to Elliot Gould’s Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, also sharing an apartment with his cat. Baldwin’s Moses Randolp is very much modelled on the real life NY developer Robert Moses (1888-1981), who tore down many neighbourhoods and eschewed public transport in favour of motorways. He also was the force behind the move of the Brooklyn Dodgers to California, robbing the borough of much of its identity. But since he was also the creator of around 245 parks in the city, many people admired him. Perhaps not the population of Harlem, because of the 245 parks, just one was built in their borough. But Baldwin is also Trump: his racist attitudes, phrases like “winning is all what is about” and “America’s greatness”, together with his posture, the childishly folded arms and a pouty posture. 

British DoP Dick Pope (Mr. Turner) and PD Beth Mickie (Drive) take the lion’s share of the success: the brownstone buildings have never looked more real, and the car chase images are not the only highlights: Pope includes all the yesterdays, even a Gothic=looking Penn Station. Norton is part of a brilliant ensemble and he can be proud of his attempt to fuse past and present together with personal stories. No Chinatown – but a bloody relevant and entertaining feature. AS

ON RELEASE from 6 December 2019

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