Neo-noir crime drama Motherless Brooklyn is one classy yarn
Motherless Brooklyn is an adaptation of the namesake novel by Jonathan Lethem. Edward Norton acquired the rights to the book almost immediately after it was published in 1999.
Having just come off his most iconic role as The Narrator in Fight Club, the climactic Pixies track Where Is My Mind asked the question and Norton answered, adjusting his acting focus to include producing, writing and directing.
Norton’s a dark horse, who’s built a career on defying expectations. From playing a tough skinhead in American History X to a lesser known bassist from Spandau Ballet in Modern Family, his versatility speaks to his wellspring of ability, and picking parts that challenge him.
Well, Motherless Brooklyn must surely be his most challenging role yet. Instead of just worrying about how he comes across on camera, the filmmaker has taken a leaflet from Clint Eastwood and Ben Affleck deciding to tackle a difficult lead role on several fronts: on front of and behind the camera. This must be his most ambitious creative effort to date.
Swathed in beautiful visuals, entrenched by a moody soundtrack and beckoning with a captivating lead character, this classy yarn is shot through with sharp performances.
The detective’s tics and curses add colour
Motherless Brooklyn centres on a lonely private detective struggling with Tourette’s yet blessed with verbatim memory. It’s the kind of fascinating character concept that could have warranted a TV series in the vein of Monk. Instead of Tony Shalhoub’s comical and germaphobic performance, which seems much closer to normal in this post-pandemic era, we have Norton as Lionel Essrog with just as many tics. Involuntary neck spasms, obsessive compulsions and uninhibited language add colour to this neo-noir crime drama. What would have been a dry gumshoe tale is escalated with this fresh perspective, allowing the unpredictable character to treat his memories like a filing cabinet.
The film has splashes of colour thanks to Lionel’s unique abilities, which actually support the genre’s propensity for detectives to fly solo. While not aiming to be an accurate adaptation, described by the author as the movie trying to remember the book as if it was a dream, the psychological spin is there.
Set in the 50s but still appealing to modern audiences
Norton’s modern take on the 50s makes the film appealing to audiences used to quick pacing. While it offers a standard mix of detective novel characters, there’s a much more contemporary and upbeat feel.
This bent towards entertainment value makes this neo-noir sleek and more accessible to mainstream audiences. Norton doesn’t skimp on production value, offering an elegant crime drama and immersing us in the world with a deep appreciation for modern appetites.
Canny casting decisions add heft
A natural underdog, Norton is confident enough to lead and lean on his supporting cast. He’s assembled some fine players, starting with Bruce Willis as his friend and mentor, Frank Minna. Willis has been doing just about any film that comes his way but rises to the occasion in Motherless Brooklyn. Alec Baldwin has impersonated former US President Donald Trump before on Saturday Night Live sketches, fulfilling a smart casting decision that connects the dots with some of the crime drama’s reflective and timely social issues. He’s despicable, immense and slippery as an untouchable property tycoon.
Smaller supporting roles go to Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Willem Dafoe, Bobby Cannavale, Ethan Suplee, Fisher Stevens and Michael Kenneth Williams. Having an actor in the director’s chair makes other actors more comfortable, especially when they’re out front with you. This understanding really translates well as each talent seems to be in their element, eager to do as much as they can with their slice of screen time opposite Norton.
Swift lane changes and gear shifts keep the action pacy
It makes for compelling storytelling, wasting no time in changing lanes as one detective falls away only for another to rise. The elegant cinematography keeps you mesmerised as the film dextrously shifts gear from short bursts of action back to moody drama.
Part of the intrigue is watching uncontrollable social encounters play out as our fledgling detective tries to mask his disorder. The constant see-sawing is a drama of its own as Essrog’s brilliant mind gives him the edge while his involuntary tics and outbursts set him back.
Recalling the 1974 classic Chinatown
While there’s a definite affinity with Monk, this artful crime drama has more in common with Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Jack Nicholson played Jake Gittes, a private investigator and unlikely hero, who stumbled onto a much bigger murder case against the backdrop of a water crisis in Los Angeles. Similarly, Motherless Brooklyn finds Ed Norton as Lionel Essrog, who stumbles onto his late mentor’s case against the backdrop of a housing crisis in New York. Moving from one coast to another, Norton adopts New York’s inner city vibrations, using jazz, small apartments and night clubs to steep this brooding and far-reaching mystery.
Motherless Brooklyn is more of a tribute to Chinatown than a rival. To be fair, even The Two Jakes sequel wasn’t able to match the smouldering majesty of Polanski’s original. Norton’s film is laden with quality ingredients, which add up to a compelling, smart, timely and star-studded detective crime drama.