Motherless Brooklyn

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My wife said, as we were walking into the screening, “What a bad name for a movie.”

I like that the title made me think of the great slide guitar Eric Clapton plays on the song Motherless Children (I highly recommend his 461 Ocean Boulevard album).

The title works once it’s explained in the movie, although I think a better title would have been “Frankie, Frankly, Frankity.”

So, Edward Norton has been wanting to do this vanity project for 20 years, and he said in an interview that he grabbed his actor friends that agreed to work for free. Norton directs, produces, writes, and stars in it. And although it’s a rather handsome production, it lacks that certain je ne sais quoi you like to see in noir pictures.

The elevator pitch for this was probably “It’s LA Confidential meets Rain Man.” It’s actually a lot more like Chinatown than either of those films.

Norton plays Lionel Essrog, a detective that doesn’t just have Tourette syndrome, he also suffers from OCD. That means you get the disability showing itself in ways that make the audience laugh (even though at times they weren’t supposed to). It’s never manifesting itself by ruining dialogue and stopping a character in their tracks, or confusing the audience in any way. And as bad as his character was supposed to have it, I don’t think his convenient ways of having outbursts…are quite the way it works. 

Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) took Lionel under his wing as a teenager, and they’ve worked together as gumshoes for years. It helps that Lionel doesn’t just have uncontrollable tics, but an impeccable memory and an ability to solve things.

When Frank is shot dead during a meeting with clients (that’s not a spoiler, as the trailers show that), Lionel investigates what he was working on.

The agency is then run by actor Bobby Cavanale (any guesses how that will work out?)

There’s a woman (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who looks gorgeous even when she gets up and puts a robe on, and she is in more danger than she realizes. She’s also rather forgiving when it comes to Lionel’s tics and constant touching. 

She brings him to the Harlem jazz club her family owns (where the gin-soaked sounding jazz, by Wynton Marsalis, is terrific). That leads to his jamming with the band (well, sort of). It also leads to his being beaten up in the back alley.

Willem Dafoe, playing his van Gogh/Lighthouse character, keeps popping up to harass Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin). He’s a politician who we know is shady because…well, he’s played by Baldwin. And Norton wrote a few scenes that I’m sure he felt rivalled the monologue Baldwin gave in Glengarry Glen Ross. They don’t, and the few allusions the film makes to Trump (including the line “I moved on her”) can take you out of the picture. 

The problem with the movie is that with a two-and-a-half-hour run time and an intricate plot, we should have been more interested in what was going down. Characters often pop up for exposition, instead of being more developed as interesting people we should care more about. 

The film tackles racism and gentrification, with crooked politicians and a few thugs, and it has all the tropes of a noir picture. It just feels too familiar. It’s certainly ambitious, if not self-serving. 

The soundtrack was great. Aside from Marsalis, there was a new Thom Yorke (Radiohead) song, and at one point they play some backmasking music, which works nicely as Lionel is playing scenes back in his head to determine what Frank said to him.

There was nice attention to detail from the late ‘50s (including Penn Station).

Overall, the film feels too gimmicky, but I was never bored watching it.

2 ½ stars out of 5.


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