By: Oberst Von Berauscht (Two Beers) –
Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) is a detective working for an agency run by Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Lionel suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome, and was picked up by Frank when he was young and taken under his wing. When Frank is killed in mysterious circumstances during an investigation, Lionel is charged by his fellow detectives with digging into Frank’s activities, to discover what led to his death. As Lionel investigates, he uncovers a conspiracy to push the mostly black minority neighborhoods out of the city in the name of progress. He finds a woman named Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and city planner Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) at the center of the conspiracy and the deeper he digs, the more people begin dying around him.
“Do you want to play with my Micro Machines?”
Edward Norton hasn’t directed a movie in 19 years, the last being Keeping the Faith, a modestly received comedy. This time Norton’s ambitions are much greater, endeavoring to make a period piece in the style of a classic hardboiled detective story. But unlike Sam Spade, or Phillip Marlowe, Lionel Essrog has no outwardly attractive appeal as either a “bad boy” or a “silver-tongued rogue”. Lionel’s condition leaves him a social outcast, as he has to continually apologize for his involuntary tics that frequently disrupt his life. Lionel’s one powerful trait that makes him suited for his job is his memory, which gives him an uncanny ability to remember details missed by many others. Norton is particularly well-suited for this challenging role, and as a performer he is in rare form here.
As a director, Norton plays it relatively safe. The story unfolds in a workmanlike fashion that serves it well, and allows his excellent cast a chance to shine. The direction reminds me of the economical approach taken by another actor-turned director, Clint Eastwood. Eastwood isn’t flashy or particularly inventive as a filmmaker, but he takes the material he is given, surrounds himself with talent, and gets the job done. That isn’t a knock against Norton (or Eastwood), as too much flash can overshadow the strength of the writing and performances. The supporting cast is truly spectacular, with Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Willem Dafoe, Bobby Cannavale, and Michael K. Williams. Each performer gets a good opportunity to display their talents.
“You ought to be in pictures”
The one thing keeping the film from being elevated to something greater than just a solid genre entry is the film’s rather ponderous plot. Because the twists are predictable, when they come they feel like nothing more than a disruption to the pacing, and the film’s two and a half hour runtime feels less than earned. Fortunately, since the film’s individual scenes are well-acted and written, it doesn’t change the fact that the movie is an entertaining watch, but anyone who has seen Chinatown will be able to see where the story is headed fairly early on.
Motherless Brooklyn is a solid showpiece for Edward Norton as an actor and director, and a compelling hardboiled mystery.
Motherless Brooklyn (2019) Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: each time Lionel has a vocal Tourette’s tic
Take a Drink: for swingin’ Jazz music.
Take a Drink: for flashbacks
Drink a Shot: each time Lionel gets beat up