Motherless Brooklyn is a blatant attempt at Oscar glory, but still manages to be a riveting noir film for the 21st century.
The film is marked by the writing and directorial effort of already accomplished actor Edward Norton, who is probably most well-known for playing the lead in Fight Club, Birdman, American History X, and the vast majority of Wes Anderson’s colorful filmography. It’s fair to say that you can tell a lot about a person from where they know Ed Norton from. Motherless Brooklyn is his first attempt at a screenplay, and his second time in the director’s chair (he directed a movie called Keeping the Faith in 2000 I don’t think anyone has ever heard of). Norton adapted it from a 1999 novel, but chose to swap out the book’s contemporary setting with the 1950s and also added its main villain.
The film follows Lional Essrog (also played by Norton), a P.I. who struggles with Tourette’s Syndrome who works to solve the murder of his boss and hero Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), and in the process uncovers malpractice in the city’s industrial sector.
Although Norton writing himself a role so that’s blatantly Oscar-bait may seem egotistical, it’s fine because he knocks it out of the ballpark. Throughout the entire film he twitches, shouts, and tries to push past his obsessive tendencies that he is tortured with everyday. I was worried going in that this would get unfortunately bothersome throughout the two-and-a-half-hour runtime, but it slides pretty seamlessly into the narrative and I was just amazed he continued it so consistently throughout his entire performance.
Norton is aided by a hand-picked supporting cast filled with actors who he has worked with previously in film and on stage. Willem Dafoe, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw all bring to the table really incredible performances that really make the 1950s setting come alive. Baldwin is particularly interesting as the film’s main villain Moses Randolph, a fictional version of American industrialist Robert Moses.
I saw the film in the theater with my grandfather for his 80th birthday. He grew up loving noir films like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, which were characterized by a gritty lead, dark lighting, and monotonous narration – all features Norton employed to great effect in Brooklyn.
There were moments I felt the film dragged a little bit, but it almost seems warranted as the characters dredge through the weeds and all the moving parts of the conspiracy they are all unknowingly a part of.
There were also points I felt some of Norton’s directorial choices were strange – for instance, a portion of conversation between him and Dafoe’s character was shot from behind in a wide shot – but for the most part I didn’t find anything too distracting.
If I had to guess, I would say the Academy will take the bait and probably throw an acting nomination Norton’s way. The film may even make the race for Best Picture, although with a good field this year, I am not sure that is a guarantee.
I’d recommend Motherless Brooklyn to anyone who is a fan of either hard-boiled noir or great performances – or at least just has an 80-year-old to entertain.