Motherless Brooklyn

  • 16 Nov - 22 Nov, 2019
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Reviews

This film is a labour of love from its writer-producer-director-star Edward Norton, as loving as it is labourious, maybe. Motherless Brooklyn is an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s bestselling novel about a New York private detective with Tourette syndrome – Norton has been developing this for the screen pretty much ever since its publication in 1999, and it is good to see him get it over the finish line.

Norton plays Lionel Essrog, the detective with a tic that means he will convulsively yelp disjointed phrases, and jerk his head and grimace as if suddenly suppressing a huge yawn; Norton fabricates these mannerisms with care. But Lionel is also blessed with a superb memory and is good at his job. When his boss, friend and mentor Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) is killed shadowing some scary individuals, his fellows Tony (Bobby Cannavale), Gilbert (Ethan Suplee) and Danny (Dallas Roberts) are shocked but resigned; Lionel is, however, convinced Frank was on the verge of blowing open a corrupt city hall conspiracy, involving the ethnic cleansing of black people from areas ripe for lucrative redevelopment. Obsessive-compulsive Lionel believes he can piece together the clues to this mystery, involving a ruthless politician (Alec Baldwin), a local malcontent (Willem Dafoe) and a smart community activist (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).

And so the long odyssey through the big gaunt city begins, a city depicted in sombre dark greys and browns; an odyssey punctuated by Lionel and his colleagues getting nasty beatings from goons and being carried back to the office covered in bruises and blood. Lionel periodically visits a hip Harlem jazz club (to whose existence he is alerted by the time-honoured plot device of the discovered matchbook) where his preternatural Tourette gift for scatting along with the band is noticed by the musician Michael K Williams – whose instrument suffers a very specific fate, which may tip you off as to who this is supposed to be. It’s a film which piles up detail upon detail, incident upon incident, punch-up upon punch-up, all swirling in a smoky, sooty world. It all feels a bit opaque, although Alec Baldwin has a good, embittered speech right at the end. It’s a heavy meal to digest, but this is a strong, vehement film with a real sense of time and place.

– Compilation