Motherless Brooklyn is a passion project of Edward Norton’s, which is incredibly clear upon watching this film noir come to life. Norton takes on the trifecta here, writing, directing and starring as the film’s lead, Lionel Essrog. His work in each department showcases how much he cares for the material, as audiences are transported back to 1950s New York, where corruption runs rampant and the middle and lower class are the ones who suffer the most.
Lionel opens the film with the classic film noir voice over explaining to the audience that he’s got something wrong with him, saying he’s got threads in his head and that he twists and shouts which makes him look like a freakshow to those around him. While he doesn’t say it, it’s clear that Lionel suffers from Tourette syndrome, and while this has caused most to shy away from him throughout his life, Lionel does have a group of friends that he grew up with in an orphanage and now works with as part of a detective agency run by Frank Minna (Bruce Willis.)
While most saw Lionel’s Tourette’s as a flaw, Frank looked past it, realizing that Lionel also has a photogenic memory that’d come in extremely handy in his line of work. So Frank brought on Lionel and his friends, Tony (Bobby Cannavale), Gilbert (Ethan Suplee) and Danny (Dallas Roberts) and taught them the tricks of the trade. Things take a turn early on, as Frank has Lionel listen in on a meeting he’s having with some rather unorthodox folk. The thing is, Frank won’t tell Lionel what case he’s working on or what the meeting is about; however, he knows that if anything goes sideways that Lionel is the one who can piece together the clues as to what went down.
Of course, things go sideways, as it wouldn’t be much of a noir crime mystery if they didn’t, and after Frank demands to be properly compensated for the materials he’s presented that signal trouble for government official William Lieberman (Josh Pais) and his cohorts. Upon doing so, these not so impressed clients of Frank’s force him into a car so he can take them to the original documents before he’s paid. Lionel and Gilbert give chase, but arrive too late, as they find the car just in time to witness Frank get shot. The clients take off, and Lionel takes Frank to the hospital, but he’s lost too much blood and dies. Don’t worry, that’s not much of a spoiler, as it’s shown within the first minute of the film’s trailer.
This is where the movie truly begins, as Lionel blames himself for Frank’s death and takes it upon himself to find out what Frank was working on, who killed him and why and make them pay. Now while this may sound like it’s about to get dark and turn into a noir John Wick, it’s really anything but. The film is based off the novel of the same name by Jonathan Lethem, which Norton loved and actually acquired the rights to adapt into a film before the book hit store shelves. The main difference is that the novel takes place in 1999, but Norton wanted to set the film in the 1950s to allow the hard-boiled detectives to fit properly into their setting.
Motherless Brooklyn also has shades of a dark comedy at times, with quick back and forth banter between characters – especially early on – that gives the film a fun vibe while it deals with some fairly serious subjects. It’s not laugh out loud funny, but the style works and helps highlight the changing tones as the film progresses. Lionel’s Tourette’s is also handled incredibly well, with Norton clearly researching the disorder and making sure to do it justice over making it a running joke. It becomes a huge part of Lionel’s charm and character instead of something that’s just there to give the protagonist a unique quirk.
The movie is two and a half hours long, and it can be argued both ways that some things could’ve been trimmed to tighten up the mystery, but I personally didn’t mind it. I felt the scenes that were given time to breathe, such as when Lionel and Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) share a dance at a jazz club. Laura is a young woman who crosses Lionel’s path as he tries to unravel all the threads to figure out what Frank was working on, and this scene in particular plays out incredibly well even though the two exchange no words.
I’m actually not sure what parts could’ve been trimmed, as everything is handled really well in order to keep the mystery alive as Lionel keeps digging deeper. Norton also has an incredible eye for how a film like this should be shot, as it’s just as engrossing visually as it is from a story standpoint. It’s all important and Lionel is just such a captivating leading character that the time never feels like it drags. It also helps that the entire cast is just packed with talent, as Norton surrounds himself with the likes of those previously mentioned, as well as Willem Dafoe, Robert Wisdom, Michael Kenneth Williams, Cherry Jones and Alec Baldwin. It’s just wall-to-wall talent that put complete faith in Norton’s vision of telling this story that he’s been working on in some shape or form for two decades.
And rightfully so, as Norton delivers a really wonderful adaptation that captures the true essence of film noir that’s not often seen these days. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the masterful Golden Globe nominated score by Daniel Pemberton that helps carry you away into the story so you feel like you’re solving the case right alongside Lionel. While the slower pacing and burn of the film may be too much for some, those who embrace it are in for a treat, as Motherless Brooklyn is a movie with a special voice that deserves to be heard.
The film looks great, capturing the feel of the genre beautifully and the look of the 1950s is heightened by the choice in colours used and the films more neutral look. The film also has its share of artistic scenes that are seamlessly integrated without the film ever missing a beat. Speaking of beats, the audio mix is top tier, the dialogue rings clear and the score is absolute perfection.
Audio Commentary – So often I’m left saying, “This release would be stronger in the special features section if it had a commentary. And not just any commentary, but one with the people we want to hear from!” Well this time I can say that this release would be fine if this was the only feature on the disc, as you get to hear from Norton himself, covering all aspects from the writing of the movie, to directing and starring in it, and everything else you could want to know about the process of this film being made. Wonderful track and a must listen.
Making-of: Edward Norton’s Methodical Process – This is a behind-the-scenes feature that’s just under 10-minutes in length and touches on some of the main points of how the film came to be, how much it means to Norton, why the other actors got involved and the production of the film. A brief, yet solid watch!
Deleted Scenes – There are also a few deleted scenes.
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Presents Motherless Brooklyn. Written & Directed by: Edward Norton. Based on the novel by: Jonathan Lethem. Starring: Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Willem Dafoe, Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis, Bobby Cannavale, Ethan Suplee, Dallas Roberts, Robert Wisdom, Michael Kenneth Williams, Cherry Jones, Josh Bais. Running time: 144 Minutes. Rating: 14A. Released on Blu-ray: Jan. 28, 2020.
Tags: Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Bruce Willis, Dallas Roberts, Edward Norton, Ethan Suplee, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Kenneth Williams, Motherless Brooklyn, Robert Wisdom, Willem Dafoe