Now streaming–Exciting, stunning, and gritty, Motherless Brooklyn is simply as good as it gets

Review by C.J. Bunce

If you’d happened to watched last year’s crime noir film Motherless Brooklyn and not known the screenwriter or director, I wouldn’t fault you if you expected to see Francis Ford Coppola’s name in the credits, or you figured Martin Scorsese finally made the perfect New York picture.  But that’s not what you’ll find, because it not only stars Edward Norton, but he wrote and directed the film–his first director effort.  And it’s an exciting, stunning, gritty film.  The fact that Motherless Brooklyn is even worthy of comparison might be praise enough for the film and its creator, but it goes a step further and surpasses a film it’s frequently been compared to–Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.  The fact that Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and The Irishman were nominated for best film at the Oscars this year, but this wasn’t?  That’s a real head-scratcher–or that Norton’s performance as a Tourette’s syndrome-affected private detective trying to find the guys that killed his boss wasn’t even nominated for best actor?  Movie lovers and fans of crime noir who missed it should catch its home release.  It’s as good as it gets.

From the first breathless scene, a car chase that rivals any in recent action movie blockbusters, audiences will find this is not a sleeper period piece.  Norton plays Lionel Essrog, number three or four man in a Mike Hammer or Erle Stanley Gardner styled private detective agency of the 1950s.  He’s sharp with a photographic memory, but a jar to his head probably caused by a nun at an orphanage caused the Tourette’s, which comes and goes depending on the stress of the situation.  Norton’s script uses the malady perfectly to illustrate even the bad guys around him have some civility, and it often means he says the opposite of what is necessary or desired resulting in some great laughs–to the characters around him and the audience.  His office is populated by a doofus, played by Ethan Suplee (Twin Peaks, Fanboys), Bobby Cannavale (Ant-Man) as the ambitious player, and Dallas Roberts (The Walking Dead) as the hardworking equal.  They all work for Frank Minna, played by Bruce Willis in one of those trademark brilliant cameo performances he does so frequently.  Minna is making his own play, but it goes sideways and he’s shot and killed.

The office has plenty to do, but that doesn’t stop Lionel from tracking down what his boss was working on and why he was killed, which leads him on a well-plotted path through the gentrification of New York City that uprooted the poor and minority communities, all toward building power for a Borough Authority boss played (rather reservedly compared to past roles) by Alec Baldwin.  Intertwined in Lionel’s sleuthing is a jazz club, where he encounters the cool sounds and stylings of a trumpet player played by Michael Kenneth Williams (Community, RoboCop) and a woman named Laura who lives upstairs that he falls for, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Loki, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, Doctor Who).  She’s working for the lead voice in the anti-building efforts, played by Cherry Jones (Awake, HouseSitter).  Along the way Lionel stumbles across Paul, played by Willem Dafoe, a troubled engineer who keeps shadowing the anti-construction hearings.

What does the film lack?  Only the over-the-top violence and extraneous sex scenes that litter your typical Oscar-winning movies.  Whenever Norton could have gone in that direction he pulls back.  The result is 2.5 hours of exciting, engaging crime noir (I didn’t look at my watch once).  Norton’s choices were that of a long-time director.  He budgeted in recreating the demolished iconic Penn Station (top photo above) and production designer Beth Mickle researched vintage photographs and plans and combined digital effects and a physical set to make the stunning setting for one of the film’s climactic scenes.   Two-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Dick Pope, whose The Illusionist is a visual marvel, created a love letter to old New York, and the musical score by Daniel Pemberton (The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) has matched his incredible soundtrack to The Man from U.N.C.L.E., forging what will likely be the soundtrack remembered in the future from 2019.

Norton tapped into the essence of what makes a great New York movie.  He wisely tapped some guest stars familiar to many for creating two of the best antagonists in the history of the Law & Order television series: the aforementioned Dallas Roberts and Fisher Stevens (Short Circuit, Awake, Early Edition).  Plus Brooklyn native Nelson Avidon looks and sounds like he could play Lennie Briscoe in a prequel series.

The result is what should have been last year’s best picture: Motherless Brooklyn has a tight script, stunning cinematography, top-tier acting performances, art direction audiences haven’t seen since The Untouchables, and a standout musical score that combines to re-create life in the boroughs from a snippet in time.  Norton has been criticized for not adhering to the novel the film was based upon, but we’ve seen that often makes for the best movies (Jaws is perhaps the best example).  It hammers away at Chinatown, using far more believable characters (yep, Norton gets into the role even more than Jack Nicholson’s umpteenth turn as himself) and a more compelling historical plot device as its MacGuffin.  It leaves the similar top-tier cast picture The Departed in its wake, and approaches at times the grander stuff of The Untouchables and The Godfather, Part 2.  And were Rainman released opposite Motherless Brooklyn in 1988, Norton’s performance would have earned the top acting award instead of Dustin Hoffman.  Pretty good for a first-time writer-director who also starred in the film.

Watch it now.  For all fans of crime noir and great movies.  Motherless Brooklyn is now available on Blu-ray here at Amazon, and streaming on Amazon Prime, Vudu, and other platforms.  And don’t pass-up the soundtrack here at Amazon.

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