I’ve always found it intriguing when a respected actor decides to step behind the camera and try his hand as director of a film. Often, such movies turn out to be deeply personal statements, particularly when a performer only makes one film. Sometimes, an actor (think Clint Eastwood, who’s directed dozens of films) turns out to be so good at playing auteur that they go on to make a full second career out of their secondary vocation.
Motherless Brooklyn is somewhere in between those two poles, as it marks the second film directed by three-time Oscar nominee Edward Norton. Back in 2000, Norton directed the sweet comedy Keeping the Faith, in which he also played a good-natured young priest who had grown up with a rabbi (played by Ben Stiller) as his best friend, and the woman friend (Jenna Elfman) who grows up to inadvertently tempt both of them.
In that movie, Norton’s priest character maintained the integrity of his vows, and the movie provided a surprisingly positive portrait of faith as a noble and inspiring force in its characters’ lives. With Motherless Brooklyn, Norton not only directs but writes the screenplay adaptation of a novel that he loves deeply: the 1999 oddball mystery of the same name by acclaimed novelist Jonathan Lethem.
The resulting film is a stylish exercise set in 1950’s Brooklyn, and is also an engaging entertainment. But this time, Norton’s character, Lionel Essrog, is haunted by the memory of nuns who tormented him while growing up in a Catholic orphanage.
The movie follows the story of the detective Essrog, who narrates the movie as he recounts the story of how he had to solve the murder of his only friend and mentor, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Frank owned a detective agency which Lionel worked for, and he was killed while in the midst of investigating some shady business dealings of a corrupt city official named Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin).
When Frank is abruptly shot dead by a group of thugs, he is only able to whisper Moses’ name to Lionel. With that singular clue, Lionel starts to unravel an incredible conspiracy overseen by Moses, while also having to protect a young black woman who works in Moses’ city department who knows details about his corruption.
At the same time, Moses’ brother Paul (Willem Dafoe) is also trying to expose Moses without getting destroyed in the process. Lionel finds the case growing ever more complicated and dangerous, and he also has to contend with another major issue: the fact that he suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome, a condition that causes near-constant tics to occur and random bursts of profanities and obscenities to pour forth from his mouth at any time.
Motherless Brooklyn has a great deal of style in the period visuals of its 1950’s New York City setting, and its terrific jazzy score by Daniel Pemberton recalls the uniquely dissonant qualities of the notable score to 2014’s Birdman.
Norton’s character, Lionel, is a unique creation, at once lovable and inducing the audience to root for him as he battles incredibly tough circumstances and his Tourette’s.
Of course, the fact that he swears often in the movie as a result of the Tourette’s may bother some viewers. However, the context of the condition and the way in which Norton portrays it matter-of-factly lessens the offensiveness somewhat.
Norton’s cast is a delight to watch, as the viewer is treated to several top-notch veteran actors dressed stylishly and having a great deal of fun in the process. The mystery drags out a little too long, as the movie could have easily benefited from being about 20 minutes shorter.
But when Norton kicks things into high gear with an ace surveillance scene and a car chase that kicks off the movie, and a climactic showdown with a giant brute on a fire escape, his visual sense, crisp pacing and general sense of showmanship all pay off richly.
The aforementioned memories of abuse by nuns, who beat Lionel thinking that they could drive Tourette’s from his mind as if it was a sinful rather than medical condition, are only mentioned in his narration, not depicted. That greatly mitigates the negative impact this may have on audiences, and frankly, this does seem to fit the kind of corporal punishment that used to be in vogue in some Catholic (and non-Catholic) schools at the time.
Overall, Motherless Brooklyn is an engaging historical crime drama that helps kick off the fall season in which studios normally release their more intelligent fare. It works on those levels if you’re willing to focus hard on the complex plot, and that focus will be richly rewarded.
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