Published on October 29th, 2019 | by Michael Newman0
With all the recent big action blockbuster movie releases recently, there is a genre that has been overlooked for some time, a good detective story. Most movies that take place in the 50’s tend to focus more on mob related backdrops and ruthless hits to draw in audiences. Motherless Brooklyn written, directed and starring Edward Norton looks to tell a story that harkens back to the day where gumshoes spoke to key individuals and followed the clues to get to the bottom of the case. This is long before forensics was a thing, and there were no fancy computer databases or DNA matching to utilize to narrow down the suspect pool. This was when it took the skills and abilities of the individual themselves to follow the clues and piece them together like a puzzle to solve each and every case.
Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) is a private detective who works at a small P.I. firm trying to eek out a living in the streets of New York back in the late 50’s. Lionel along with his fellow gumshoes grew up in a Catholic orphanage that cemented the bond between them all as both friends and family. Lionel suffers from Tourette’s syndrome causing him to tick and burst out in unusual statements which only gets worse as he gets nervous or excited, however he also possesses a photographic memory, able to recall specific conversations and repeat them verbatim when asked.
On what begins as a seemingly routine job, things quickly turn deadly when Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) the lead private investigator (and owner) of the firm is gunned down in an alley. With very little information to go on and forced to confront each suspect while attempting to maintain his composure, Lionel must use his smarts and the help of his friends to piece together what Frank was involved in and unravel the mystery before anyone else gets hurt. His investigation will take him throughout the streets of New York at a time where racial tensions were bubbling over, and the lure of power and money was more than folks could ignore.
Edward Norton does an outstanding job with his portrayal of an average Joe who must overcome a debilitating mental condition to find those who killed his friend. He does such a believable job with his portrayal of Tourette’s that at times it’s hard to believe that he doesn’t suffer from it in his real life. Much the same way Jack Nicholson brought Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder into the public conscious in As Good as it Gets, Norton portrays his Tourette’s in a somewhat comical, but still respectable manner. In a way, his condition disappears into the background allowing his skills and smarts to come across first.
Norton is joined by a star-studded cast featuring Bruce Willis as his best friend Frank Minna, a seemingly well-intentioned man who has stood up and protected Lionel since child-hood. Alec Baldwin portrays a powerful and ruthless city official, looking to extend his power in the city while making a small fortune in the process. Willem DaFoe, fresh off of another Oscar worthy performance in The Lighthouse, once again brings his acting pedigree to the mix and last, but certainly not least Gugu Mbatha-Raw brings a smart and extremely strong female character with what should be an Oscar winning performance.
Motherless Brooklyn is a long movie (chalking in a bit over two and a half hours) and does take some time to gather its footing. This is a detective movie after all, and much of the action takes place speaking with suspects and researching in the library. It certainly brings an authentic feel to detective work in the 50’s and is a surprisingly refreshing detour from the onslaught of action and superhero movies which have dominated the screens in 2019. New York in the 50’s comes to life with the incredible costumes, vehicles and just overall feel of what the city must have been like back in the day. It’s a testament to how much wardrobe and attention to detail can take the viewers back in time. For those who lack the sort of patience that this movie will certainly require, it may seem a bit overwhelming to consider, however once the viewers settle in, they are in for a treat as they join Lionel in piecing the puzzle together, to sort out what led to the death of his friend.
Motherless Brooklyn was exactly the type of movie I was hoping for, a gritty detective movie that isn’t overly concerned with outrageous plots or frantic gun play. It’s a movie about gathering the clues, investigating the leads, and seeing where it takes you. The star-studded cast is outstanding, and I certainly cannot over emphasize the pivotal role that Norton brings to the screen. If old crime novels and private investigator stories are your cup of tea, you’ll find that Motherless Brooklyn checks off all the boxes. In a sea of superhero movies and high action thrillers, it’s refreshing to come across a film that brings some realism back to the cinema.
4 out of 5 stars.