In 1950s New York, Tourette syndrome sufferer Lionel (Edward Norton) works for private eye Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Affectionately nicknamed “Motherless Brooklyn” by Frank, Lionel’s photographic memory makes him a good detective. However, when Frank is killed whilst investigating a secret case, Lionel feels he must honour his boss’s trust by finding out the truth, no matter where it leads…
…is neither a star vehicle nor a wholly ensemble-led piece.
Written, directed and starring Edward Norton, ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ is neither a star vehicle nor a wholly ensemble-led piece. Seeing the world through Lionel’s eyes, we are exposed to the minutiae of an impoverished New York still trying to find its feet. Small-time deals have major significances and as Lionel fastidiously follows the clues, major bureaucratic corruption can found washing its hands of the petty crimes it ignores.
Standing out from the hugely talented cast, both Willem Dafoe and Cherry Jones continues to impress, and relative newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw continues her upward trajectory with another spirited, yet nuanced performance as a civil rights advocate. Yet, dominating every scene is the bull-like presence of Alec Baldwin as unscrupulous civic developer Moses Randolph. Swollen on the messianic power that he wields, Baldwin believably employs a skewed morality to divide those who would oppose him. Opposite him as Lionel, Edward Norton is similarly impressive. Believably inhabiting and owning all the mannerisms and ticks that define Lionel, it’s both a compelling and unselfish performance. That said, as often is the case, it is the vignettes on the edge of the larger roles that really seal the deal on a dramatised world and so it is with Michael K. Williams’s “trumpet man”. Aching with regret and yet a palpable hurt, he breezes in halfway through the film with a handful of scenes that make you wish there were more.
Clocking in at nearly two and a half hours, ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ is an unashamedly slow film. Perhaps appropriately distributed by Netflix, where kinder audiences will forgive its elongated running time, I believe it could still benefit with a little more time in the edit suite. Intentionally focussed on a historical sense of corruption, the immediate parallel is that of an east coast version of ‘Chinatown’.
Similar also to Netflix‘s other heavyweight offering (‘The Irishman’), ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ has an equally doughy quality to its storytelling. Although it’s the more original movie than Scorsese’s magnum opus, you’d be hard-pressed to decide which is the better reward for your patience.