What They Say:
Lionel Essrog is a lonely private detective who doesn’t let Tourette’s syndrome stand in the way of his job. Gifted with a few clues and an obsessive mind, Lionel sets out to solve the murder of Frank Minna — his mentor and only friend. Scouring the jazz clubs and slums of Brooklyn and Harlem, Essrog soon uncovers a web of secrets while contending with thugs, corruption and the most dangerous man in the city.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Based on the novel of the same name by Jonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn was written and directed by Edward Norton as his directorial debut. As has been said during his press junkets, it’s a project he’s wanted to bring to life since he read the book when it came out in 1999 but with some changes. Interestingly, the book took place in the present day when it came out but this one takes us back to 1957, giving us a kind of film noir aspect to it that definitely works in its favor. Clocking in at just under 2 ½ hours, it’s something that might otherwise bother me but I’m hard-pressed to say what should really be cut because part of the whole neo-noir crime stuff is that it has that kind of slow and languid approach, especially with the music. And with cinematography by Dick Pope, well hell, I wanted more of this take on a city struggling with itself.
I’ve liked Norton’s acting for a long time through some pretty varied projects and this one is certainly something that you can understand why he’s drawn to it. With the lead character being one of several private investigators, there’s still plenty to mine in that genre in general. But give the man Tourettes? That’s a dangerous line to walk because if it goes too far in the wrong direction it’s either inauthentic or it takes you out of the film too much. I think Norton pretty much nailed that aspect of it here because there’s plenty of ways to manage how he interacts with others about it, apologizing a lot, explaining in brief. Hell, he could have made up some story related to a war experience and gotten sympathy for it. It perhaps feels a bit unrealistic that everyone else largely accepts it or just ignores it for the most part but the story isn’t about the Tourettes, or even his struggle with it. It’s about trying to solve why his friend and boss, Frank Minna, ended up dead in an alley by people that appear to be very connected to the New York state government.
The film is one that exists within the usual kind of period piece that you’d expect with hard-nosed detectives running out of a crummy office together, a sense of bond about them that goes back to when they were kids growing up in the area or in an orphanage. When Frank ends up gunned down, it nearly breaks them if not for the focus of just trying to keep the agency open. It’s Norton’s character of Lionel Essrog that can’t let go of it because of the Tourettes. He was there with Frank as he died in the hospital and feels obligated to find out who was really behind it and why. This leads him down a path into sprawling city-wide corruption, citizen advocacy, and the complicated aspect of interracial relationships on top of simple racism and power dynamics themselves. It also has this interesting long view at times through Alec Baldwin’s character of Moses Randolph, a man who holds several offices within the state level that essentially allows him to have more power than the mayor when it comes to development. And when you bring in a lot of parks to the city, revitalize areas, upgrade access, and talk about what’s needed for the city over the next fifty years, that puts you in a positive light for a lot of people.
Not those that are having their homes illegally listed as rundown and dangerous, evicting those that won’t leave by force, and more. This is the history of a great many cities in this country that still goes on and even though it doesn’t portray it in a positive light by any means I do like that Baldwin’s character is able to put it into a context where he sees himself as the hero in the story. This is not a cartoonish buffoon of an evil villain slumlord plowing highways through neighborhoods. He’s cold and methodical in believing that he’s leaving a stamp on it that will last generations, much like the work done in the 20s before the collapse that foresaw what the city would need in this time and place. When he talks about how little access there was with most people coming in on ships and then leaving the city in waves, his plans are ones that radically change the nature of it all.
It’s the kind of stuff that gets you to want to find some good history books on the evolution of a city like this that was around for three hundred years and has an extensive history of pushing people out in order to give it what it needs. His story of the farmers being removed and the loss of the countryside in order to create central park – when the city didn’t even extend that full length at the time – casts a lot of what he does as just a furtherance of its original sin. This isn’t stuff that Lionel is interested in but what it is becomes the fabric of why Frank was killed and the clues that Lionel begins to explore, which in turn brings him into the orbit of Laura Rose, a young African-American woman advocating for those in Brooklyn who are about to be dispossessed of their homes and businesses. Lionel doesn’t exactly fall for her on the spot but the two spend a good bit of time together once she’s introduced more than a third of the way into it. And their relationship does feel like a slow and natural thing, a complicated one by the events surrounding them that are building more and more. It doesn’t help that Lionel is pretending to be a reporter either instead of revealing that he’s a private detective.
While I really dislike that they find a way to use the title in the film, always an awkward moment, I really enjoyed this film. The pacing is one that completely fits here and the length is something that reminds you that if you want to tell a good noir-style story you have to give it room to breathe. Otherwise, you just end up with it being too fast in one direction or you might as well just make it a streaming series going the other direction. At 2 ½ hours, everyone gets fleshed out as needed and you touch on a lot of interesting subjects without making every single person that Norton meets into a villain or a caricature of one. There are certainly cliches at times but in the end, it’s a film that has a lot of talent in front of and behind the camera that made for an engaging story. It’s a fascinating look at the time and place with timeless issues that have likely played out cyclically over the centuries.