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In Theaters: MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN (2019)

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MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN
(US - 2019)

Written and directed by Edward Norton. Cast: Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Willem Dafoe, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones, Michael Kenneth Williams, Leslie Mann, Ethan Suplee, Dallas Roberts, Fisher Stevens, Josh Pais, Robert Ray Wisdom, Radu Spinghel, Peter Lewis, Stephen Adley Guirgis, DeShawn White. (R, 144 mins)

If it seems like MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN is the kind of film that's been frozen in ice since 2002 and is just now getting thawed, that could be because director/writer/star Edward Norton has been shepherding it through a nearly two-decade development since he purchased the movie rights to Jonathan Lethem's acclaimed novel shortly after it was published in 1999. But it's also because this is the kind of prestige piece that's becoming an increasingly rare commodity in multiplexes these days. A complex NYC noir with echoes of CHINATOWN and a generous helping of the kind of big-city corruption that's reminiscent of Sidney Lumet, MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN probably would've received a more welcome reception as a period HBO or Netflix miniseries, where it would've earned significant acclaim and cleaned up at the Emmys and the Golden Globes. But in theaters, it's a different story. Warner Bros. even seemed to lose confidence in it as the release date approached, knocking it down to 1300 screens in the days before it opened, even after a relentless TV ad blitz in the preceding weeks. The sad fact is that times have changed, and in an era when everything has to be a blockbuster, this kind of modest, mid-level production doesn't bring in the crowds anymore, whether you want to call it a movie for "grownups" or one that's geared toward "older audiences," or simply, a "dad movie." There's plenty of explanations--the trend toward mega-budget franchises, the fact that it'll be on VOD and Blu-ray in three or four months, and that, let's be honest, Norton hasn't headlined a hit movie in a long time. Even though it's a top-notch "dad movie," it's still a small miracle that MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN is in theaters at all.






Norton takes so many liberties with Lethem's novel that one could argue the film is its own separate thing. Two major changes: he moves the setting from the then-present late 1990s to the late 1950s (his feeling being that the use of hard-boiled dialogue in the present day worked on the page but would seem too ironic and gimmicky on the screen, and he's right, since BRICK already beat him to it), and he invents a major character exclusive to the film in one Moses Randolph, a venal political power player inspired by notorious Manhattan city planner and parks commissioner Robert Moses, whose post-Depression projects ran up debt and seemed insidiously designed to isolate black neighborhoods, thus propagating the long decline in areas that became slums and ghettos in the ensuing decades. As loose as Norton plays with Lethem's source work, MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN works as a well-made, leisurely-paced, and very character-driven film that unfolds like a good book, with a memorable hero in Lionel Essrog (Norton), who has Tourette's and can't stop shouting inappropriate things at the wrong time. On one hand, this feels like another chance for Norton to do his PRIMAL FEAR/THE SCORE schtick, but fortunately, Norton the actor is kept in check by Norton the director, who's careful to avoid turning his long-gestating pet project into a self-indulgent vanity project.


Lionel works as part of the investigative crew of Brooklyn gumshoe Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who affectionately calls him "Brooklyn" and makes use of Lionel's ability to remember even the most trivial of details. The crew--which also consists of Tony (Bobby Cannavale), Gilbert (Ethan Suplee), and Danny (Dallas Roberts)--have been with Frank since they were kids, when they were all in an orphanage and he took them under his wing. When Frank is killed (aaaand...exit Bruce Willis 15 minutes in) during a dangerous meet in a fleabag hotel with some mystery men--where Frank hid a phone in a dresser drawer so Lionel could listen at a pay phone across the street--Lionel becomes fixated on piecing together the puzzle of meaningless words and phrases from the conversation to find out what Frank was up to and why he wouldn't clue them in. Lionel's pursuit of numerous disparate leads--Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a legal aid for civil rights and gentrification activist Gabby Hurwitz (Cherry Jones); a jazz club owned by Laura's father (Robert Ray Wisdom); a worldly jazz trumpeter (Michael Kenneth Williams); a disgruntled engineer (Willem Dafoe, midway through growing his LIGHTHOUSE beard) who's fallen on hard times; and Randolph (Alec Baldwin), who runs a dozen powerful city offices but remains an unelected public official with enough juice to bully the mayor (Peter Lewis) into bending to his will--eventually comes together, though he gets roughed up several times by a group of Randolph goons led by Lou (Fisher Stevens) and lets things get personal when he realizes that Laura's life is in danger.


Norton's tic-filled performance can be big but it's never hammy, and it's a welcome approach that everyone seems to understand that there's something wrong with his head that makes him act the way he does. He often has to explain that "It's like a piece of my head broke off and is just joyriding me," followed by something like "Giant faggot munchkin meat!" or "Tits on a Tuesday,!" or, if he gets really worked up, a loud "IF!" accompanied by a wild head thrash. Even though the other guys in Frank's office call him "Freakshow," it's a term of endearment among them, as they demonstrably take his insights and opinions seriously. Norton's Lionel is a real character instead of a series of awards-baiting outbursts. The creation of Baldwin's Moses Randolph serves to add social and historical commentary to the story line with the dead-on Robert Moses parallels, as well as an obvious, and maybe slightly ham-fisted modern political allegory, with Baldwin's performance being a significantly less cartoonish interpretation of his SNL Donald Trump impression (Randolph even quotes him nearly verbatim at one point, arguing the semantics of rape and stating "When you're powerful, you can do anything you want"). The Trumpification of Robert Moses into Moses Randolph helps MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN become a film of its time in ways that it couldn't have had Norton made this 20 years ago, though, admittedly, die-hard devotees of Lethem's novel probably won't be enthused about these additional layers.


"Bruce, I said I'd *try* to get you out of here
in one day, but I never made any guarantees." 
At 144 minutes, MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN may run a little long, but it's always engrossing, and the only weak spot is the perpetually inconvenienced Willis, continuing to give Steven Seagal a run for his rubles as the laziest actor alive. It's really something to watch the way Norton has to shoot Frank's meeting with the four Randolph goons in a gimmicky way to cover for Willis obviously not being there with Fisher Stevens and the other actors. The hotel room is dark and shadowy and the image drifts in and out of focus in an almost hallucinatory fashion for no reason, with Willis obviously doubled from the back (the guy's head isn't even shaped like Willis') and his close-ups are always just him with no one else in the shot when he's responding to someone's questions. This sequence is in the first ten minutes and it actually gets the film off to a clunky start because it looks like Norton is going for some pointless auteur wankery right out of the gate until you realize that it's this way because Willis can't even be bothered to show up for work on good movies, let alone Lionsgate's landmark, ongoing "Bruce Willis Phones In His Performance From His Hotel Room" series. When Norton was on the dais of Comedy Central's roast of Willis last year, with MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN already wrapped, he wondered if he could get away with the things Willis does: "Could I just leave the set of a movie after my close-ups are done and have my co-stars act opposite a C-stand with a red X taped to it while a script girl reads my dialogue to them?" Gentle ribbing or spoken from experience?


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