#REVIEW: “MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN”
Review by George Kozera for Mr. Will Wong
“Passion project”. These two words can strike fear in a moviegoer’s gut when they realize a film they are about to see is being labelled as such. In 1999, Oscar-nominated Edward Norton saw the cinematic potential in Jonathan Lethem’s Novel, Motherless Brooklyn, but envisioned its contemporary setting and characters as a period piece set in New York City in the 1950s and make significant plot changes. It is easy to see why Norton was attracted to the Book as its main character, Lionel Essrog, is a lonely private detective with Tourette Syndrome. It may have taken Norton 20 years to accomplish this, but as Actor/Writer/Producer/Director, MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN is one of this year’s most consummate films.
Lionel (aka Brooklyn) is part of a small group of private eyes who work for his childhood mentor, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). When Minna is ambushed and left for dead while in the midst of an investigation, Lionel goes on a mission to uncover who killed Minna, his father figure, and the reasons why. We follow as he journeys through Brooklyn neighbourhoods, a Harlem jazz club and midtown Manhattan circa 1957 as he finds a web of political, real estate corruption. And, with only one minor caveat, it is a journey that invigorates and mesmerizes. MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN offers such an embarrassment of cinematic riches that I don’t know where to begin!
If Daniel Pemberton‘s Score is ignored on Oscar nominations day, it would be a great shame. The smoky and sensuous jazz riffs (which include legendary Wynton Marsalis on the Soundtrack) waft seductively throughout and are a character onto themselves. It provides the beat that enhances every performance in the Movie. It is also impossible not to be thunderstruck by the Cinematography. Not only does Dick Pope evoke the feel of a Film Noir brilliantly, he gloriously highlights the Art Deco influences and beauty of New York City in the 50s. The final scene of the Movie was like a David Hockney painting come to life. Kudos to Amy Roth for the on-point Costumes and the Art Direction by Michael Ahern for making one believe that this Movie could not possibly have been filmed in the present. It is authentic and moody.
But the person who had the most to lose making MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN must be acknowledged for making his passion project a reality. Edward Norton’s writing prowess successfully weaves modern day issues of political corruption and prejudices and relationships believably into an environment set decades ago. His role as Lionel is the Movie’s juiciest, yet when taking into account that his character is a mass of tics and head jerks as he goes through his days battling Tourette and OCD disorder, Norton is triumphant. He took a risky character and fleshed him out expertly and compellingly. Not only is his performance memorable, as a director, Norton skillfully elicits powerful performances from everyone in the Cast; it is one of the best Ensembles seen this year. Whereas Bruce Willis’s time on-screen can be considered a cameo, his impact is profound. Joining him, in what should be an Oscar nomination in the Supporting Actor category is Alec Baldwin. As the ruthless real estate mogul Moses Randolph, who is transforming poor black neighbourhoods into parking lots leaving hundreds homeless and broke, it is Baldwin’s career-best performance. It is also fortuitous casting, taking into account Baldwin’s stint on SNL as Trump. Both characters spew racist and misogynist rhetoric which adds texture to his portrayal as Moses. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (whom we first took notice of in her stunning performance in Belle released in 2013) as a housing activist living above a jazz bar, is eloquent and masterful as are Willem Dafoe, Bobby Cannavale and Cherry Jones in smaller, yet no less impactful roles.
At 144 minutes, MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN is a tad too long (a familiar trait of passion projects) and I can forgive the vibes of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown that this Movie projects, but it is essential viewing for those enamoured with the lost art of Film Noir. It is intelligently-written, visually stunning and superbly acted.
Warner Bros. Canada release MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN Friday, November 1, 2019.