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Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

Motherless Brooklyn


Motherless Brooklyn -- a review by FilmZ

If you love film noir, then Motherless Brooklyn is for you, though it's not typical of the genre's tidy, slim stories.  MB's convolutions and complications bulge into a 144-minute runtime.   Based on Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel, which we admit we haven't read, its strongest points are the sense of time and place--we have the costumes, the cars, classic club jazz, and the cinemagic that recreates late 1950s New York and the smoky backroom smell of urban political corruption and crime.  As screenwriter and director, Edward Norton acquits himself well; as the eponymous star (whose real name is Lionel Essrog), he reminds us of his dynamic big-screen debut in 1996's Primal Fear.  We're happy to see a stand-alone film with a terrific cast and high production values, but without knowing the source material, it seems like Norton tried to honor it while adding both historical and present-day relevance and that attempt, though admirable, might have overstuffed the suitcase.

Lionel, our protagonist, is a private eye dealing with Tourette’s Syndrome and a touch of obsessive-compulsiveness.  He is the protege of Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), a hard-bitten WWII vet-turned shamus. When the film begins, Lionel and fellow junior partner Gilbert (Ethan Suplee) are backing Frank up from a distance as he meets with some gangland types.  The meeting becomes tense, and the mobsters take Frank for a ride, losing Lionel and Gilbert.  When they finally catch up, Frank has been shot, and he dies leaving only the vaguest of clues: "Formosa" and something about a "colored girl."  Fellow partner Danny (Dallas Roberts) follows a lead and gets beaten to a pulp, so he begs off of the investigation, and another gumshoe, Tony (Bobby Cannavale). seems more interested in Franks' widow (Leslie Mann) than getting justice for his deceased colleague. Meanwhile, at City Hall, we find Moses "Moe" Randolph (Alec Baldwin), a power broker whose only interest is more power as chief of several city-planning departments.  Opposing him is community activist Gabby Horowitz (Cherry Jones) and her assistant Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha Raw). Other Characters include Paul (Willem Dafoe), a down on his luck architectural engineer; William Lieberman (Josh Pais), Moses' fixer; Lou (Fisher Stevens), a shady thug; and Trumpet Man (Michael Kenneth Williams) a friend of Laura.  Lionel's job is to wend his way through corruption and sift clues while remaining alive long enough to avenge his fallen mentor.

As we said above, the casting is excellent. Of particular note are Baldwin, bombastic and as serious as a heart attack; Dafoe, twitchy and intense; Jones brings an  Elizabeth Warren vibe; Williams, ever cool but dangerous; and, of course, Norton, who raises afflictions to high art.  His mannerisms are at once unpredictable, humorous, and sensitive, and they are wrapped into a performance that should garner Oscar consideration.  Dick Pope's cinematography and Daniel Pemberton's music made the experience immersive.

We were informed by our resident historian Captain HE Albano that Moe was inspired by real-life New Yorker Robert Moses, who inspired Robert Caro's book The Power Broker.  Plot points parallel Moses projects where he displaced viable Black neighborhoods by labeling them "slums" and replaced them with parks, making him a folk hero among White citizens.  Then he built bridges with low overhangs so that buses carrying minorities could not access those parks.  The omniscient observer of our group, Don Swedanya, said the film is reminiscent of Chinatown, and though he enjoyed it, he noted, through that prism, Motherless Brooklyn pales in comparison.  It's not fair to demean this film by comparing it to an all-time classic because it is a good movie.  But Norton's efforts in blending the source material with Moses' biography and a touch of Trumpism might have been a bridge too far.
7.5 out of 10






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