Edward Norton’s new movie Motherless Brooklyn is a nice try that doesn’t quite hit the spot. It’s a decent film, just not the home run that Norton was shooting for.
Norton is the director, the writer and the star of the film.
It’s a suspense mystery that some have referred to as Chinatown: East. Yes, Motherless Brooklyn does share some elements with that 1974 classic: a power hungry municipal public works figure, secret family dynamics and a murder of somebody who knew too much.
MB, set in late 50’s New York City, also has some cool vintage cars—as does Chinatown—though the auto livery here seems a bit heavy on big tail fin cars of the era.
Lionel (Norton), nicknamed Brooklyn by his boss and mentor Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), is a private detective. Lionel has Tourette’s. He has a number of vocal and physical tics. He has great memory skills which he demonstrates throughout the film. He is fully functioning and has good awareness of his problem—not quite Rain Man.
When Minna is murdered by a group of thugs, Lionel follows clues that lead him to jazz musicians in Harlem, equal housing advocates and a ruthless power broker named Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin).
Randolph’s character resembles the real life mid-century New York development leader Robert Moses, the man who was sometimes blamed for the Dodgers relocation to Los Angeles. (Moses rejected the Dodgers’ plan for a new ballpark in Brooklyn.)
Lionel is fascinated by a mixed-race woman he meets at the housing office, Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). For two reasons: she gives him information and she’s gorgeous.
Also among the cast: Bobby Cannavale as a fellow detective and Willem Dafoe as an activist, who is another of Lionel’s key info sources.
A couple of questions to consider: Does Norton merit best actor Oscar consideration? Not a slam-dunk but he should be in the conversation. Norton takes the advice of Tropic Thunder‘s Kirk Lazarus and does not go full (that way). Norton has played damaged individuals before so he knows restraint. Also, does Baldwin’s ruthless character bring to mind a certain power hungry NYC developer who now occupies the White House? Yes, actually.
Motherless Brooklyn is an ambitious project that, to borrow a classic movie quote, could’ve been a contender. But it falls just a bit short.