Motherless Brooklyn (R)
01/12/19 23:05 Filed in: 2019
Directed by: Edward Norton
Starring: Edward Norton
Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!
Based on the novel of the same name by Jonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn is a neo-noir set in NYC during the 1950s. It’s a tale of murder, greed, scandal and political corruption. Some things never change.
The film opens with Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton), a private detective afflicted (or blessed) with Tourette’s Syndrome, assisting his boss, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), with an important case. Things go sideways when Frank is taken for a ride, shot in the stomach and dumped in an alley. Frank’s final words not only hint at the identity of his murderer, they also blow the lid off a high-level political scandal.
As he begins unraveling the tangled web of graft, Lionel meets Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an attorney who’s advocating for the scores of minority families that are being forced out of their homes to make way for new housing developments. Lionel also encounters Paul Randolph (Willem Dafoe), a disgruntled engineer who implicates his brother, Moses (Alec Baldwin), as the chief architect of the unlawful land grab. These clues edge Lionel ever closer to the truth behind Frank’s death…and, as we learn in the opening sequence, once Lionel starts pulling on a loose string, he just can’t stop.
Due to the movie’s excesses, it’s difficult to remain impartial while evaluating it. On the one hand, Motherless is a gorgeous film (Norton’s deft direction beautifully captures the look and feel of the 50s milieu) with superb acting from its scintillating cast and period appropriate production elements—sets, props, clothing and coifs are all crafted with excellence. On the other hand, the movie is loaded with foul language (including over 60 F-bombs) and crude speech from one set of credits to the other.
It’s unfortunate that the movie’s unsavory dialog sullies the worthwhile facets of its story. Its R rating also prevents a broader audience from experiencing the movie’s remarkable central performance. Norton’s neck snaps and sudden outbursts never feel forced or rehearsed and are thoroughly convincing…an Oscar-worthy turn.
Lionel’s condition serves as a wild card element and produces sympathy in other characters (and the audience) when he apologizes for his behaviors (“I’ve got a condition…makes me say funny things”). Lionel’s ticks and quirks are the most interesting part of the movie. The same story with an average Joe detective would’ve made for a much duller film.
In adapting the screenplay, Norton borrowed story devices from two of the finest movies ever made: Chinatown (1974) and Citizen Kane (1941). Even though they take place on opposite coasts and are separated by a couple decades, Chinatown and Motherless both feature subplots involving political malfeasance. However, while the dispute in Chinatown concerns the theft of water, the civic upheaval in Motherless centers on the illegal appropriation of land.
Unlike Chinatown, there’s a racial element in Motherless, since the people being forced from their homes are largely Blacks and Latinos. One character refers to the city’s renovation efforts as “a program for Negro removal,” which hints at a systematic relocation (and perhaps even genocide).
Norton added the character of Moses Randolph to Lethem’s original cast of characters. Randolph is based on Robert Moses, a controversial city planner who lived in NYC during the mid-20th century. Orson Welles also modeled his main character in Kane after a real-life figure: many feel that Charles Foster Kane was a thinly-veiled analog of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. Norton’s use of the name Randolph would seem to be a tip of the hat to Kane.
One of the most poignant scenes in the movie is when Paul tells Lionel that his brother, Moses, is part of a “shadow branch” of our government—no one voted him in and no one can vote him out. Moses is the exemplar of the type of unelected bureaucrat that’s ruining our country. He’s completely remorseless over uprooting communities and honestly thinks his efforts are going to make things better for future generations.
Moses believes that real power is when “not one person can stop you.” This proves, beyond question, that Moses has no compunctions about operating above the law. So steeped in narcissism and egomania is Moses, that he just gives a haughty smirk when someone burns an effigy of him at a rally with a sign that reads “Moses the Dictator!”
Paul is a man of good conscience, but he’s afraid of his brother. In the end, only Lionel has the fortitude to confront Moses. A person willing to stand up for what’s right also describes J.J. “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in Chinatown, as well as Will Kane (Gary Cooper) in High Noon (1952).
In the end, the movie is a well produced period piece with superb acting and directing. Motherless is a slow boil, hard-boiled crime yarn with flourishes of high art (the movie’s climax crosscuts between action in a taxi, a subway and a jazz club, where the band provides vigorous accompaniment for the entire sequence). It’s also a story that’s uber-salient with what’s transpiring in our government at present.
Early buzz for the film seems to indicate its potential to be in the hunt for Oscar’s top prize. Sadly, any accolades or awards the film receives will only perpetuate its objectionable content.
Lionel describes his condition as having glass in his brain. After enduring nearly two and a half hours of slow pacing, murky plotting and incessant swearing, I know exactly how he feels.
Instant classic or instantly forgettable? The jury is out.
Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4