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Review: Motherless Brooklyn (2019)

Motherless Brooklyn (2019)

Directed by: Edward Norton

Premise: Based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem. Set in 1950s New York City, a private detective with Tourette’s Syndrome (Edward Norton) investigates the murder of his boss and uncovers a conspiracy among the city’s developers and politicians.

What Works: Motherless Brooklyn is an ambitious story of murder and corruption that is also about the foundation of contemporary New York City and by extension most major metropolitan areas. This is primarily a noir detective story; it isn’t as severely stylized as Touch of Evil or The Third Man but Motherless Brooklyn certainly descends from films of that type and it has some striking images. Sequences are staged and framed in interesting ways that heighten the mystery. The story of Motherless Brooklyn is full of twists and turns. This is a complicated mystery with a lot of characters and interested parties but it is all presented in a way that is totally coherent. One of the most impressive qualities of Motherless Brooklyn is the way this story interweaves the lives of people in different walks of life. The murder of a private detective sets his assistant onto an investigation that reveals links between city hall, private developers, and the city’s communities of color and the story illustrates quite clearly how decisions made by those at the very top impact the lives of people at the very bottom. It also links race and city planning and economics in a way that illustrates social injustice as a byproduct of progress. That’s a bold and even subversive approach. New York City is one of the defining locations in the United States; the city represents the essence of America. Motherless Brooklyn suggests that the construction of America’s most mythologized city was built through corrupt practices. That makes us rethink some of the ways we’ve conceived of New York City and what it represents. Motherless Brooklyn has a very good cast. In addition to directing, producing, and writing this film, Edward Norton also acts in the lead role as a private detective who is afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome. Norton’s character is interesting even without Tourette’s and Norton plays it just right, allowing the condition to give the character some additional color but without turning him into a sympathy case. Also impressive are Alec Baldwin as a sinister developer and Michael Kenneth Williams as a jazz musician.
What Doesn’t: Motherless Brooklyn frequently comes across anachronistic. The movie never quite feels as though it takes place in the 1950s; it always looks like people pretending to exist in that era. Some of this is to do with the performances which generally feel contemporary. It’s also due to Motherless Brooklyn’s portrait of race relations. Several characters in this movie feel too twenty-first century with regard for racial equality and social justice. The art direction and costuming also feel artificial in this way. Everything is a little too polished and perfectly cut rather than looking dirty, worn, and lived in. The film also suffers from sluggish pacing. The opening and the closing of Motherless Brooklyn are great but the story sags in the middle. The filmmakers struggle to keep up the tension and a few sequences go on too long.  

Bottom Line: Motherless Brooklyn stumbles a bit as a historical piece but the story is smart and it has a compelling premise and few good performances. This film is a mostly well told tale that makes for a satisfying mystery with a little substance. 

Episode: #775 (November 10, 2019)