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  • Writer's pictureBruce Klein

Motherless Brooklyn: Review

In Motherless Brooklyn, all the cinematic elements are there, but they didn’t mesh together. The story opens with a narrator speaking as we see two men in a car in 1950s Brooklyn. They are tailing their boss when they lose the car on the Williamsburg Bridge. When they catch up, they find their boss dying in the street. Their boss Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) was onto something and he got killed for it.

We gradually find out that the dirt he was onto is big enough to cause a scandal. Along the way our antagonist Lionel Essrog (Ed Norton), as he is looking for Frank’s killer, finds people in high places and folks in a jazz club in Harlem. It takes him a long time to get anywhere in the investigation although the action is moving at a fast place, nothing important is happening. The contrast is annoying and makes this sequence of scenes too long. Finally, the plot picks up again and the story moves ahead.

Edward Norton (Birdman, American History X) adapted the screen play from a book, but the book wasn’t pulled apart enough to create an excellent visual story. Too much time is spent establishing the characters and their relationship with each other while the story lags behind. There are too many subplots that aren’t needed and don’t seem to go anywhere.

For example, Lionel suspects that Tony Vermonte (Bobby Cannavale), also one of Frank’s subordinates, had an affair with Frank’s wife. But it is of no importance at all. Lionel had a tough growing up and has an affliction. Having these two traits may have worked in the book, but on the screen it leans too heavily on his character. There is one large subplot that revolves around Moses Randolph (Alex Baldwin), the city planner for New York, that has gravitas but also conflicts with the plot.

Most of the acting is good but some of the actors don’t come off well, such as Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). She's is having a romance with Lionel. But sadly, Mbatha-Raw mis-portrays the character. She seems very cold and bottled up. She warms up when with Lionel, but her change in feeling for Lionel is not reflected in her eyes. They are not alive. Overall, her feelings are not decipherable and her movements are halfhearted. Moses (Baldwin) has a brother, Paul (William Dafoe) that used to work with him but “Mo” dropped him. The part is not played well enough to establish his character as relevant, although he is important in the plot. On the other hand, Baldwin's character, is played powerfully and realistically. He is the guy you don’t want to cross. There are many scenes with Baldwin and his character, Moses character steals every scene he's in. When Baldwin is on camera, he is the main character.

Suspense builds in the third act. The buildup starts slow and only the music tips you off. Although Lionel has a photographic memory, he strains to remember the clues needed to solve the mystery. Still, the third act is the best act by far and the ending is excellent. It’s where the picture excites and comes together.

The uncredited actor of the film, New York City, is a fantastic and unique city, but it comes across as only as a backdrop in the movie. If you think of New York as a great character then the city’s performance is limited. The movie has the look of the 50s, but not the feel. It feels like today or maybe any period. The movie has good elements but they just don’t jell.

Ed Norton not only stared in this movie but also produced, wrote and directed it. It took him twenty years to get the movie made. The struggle and the multiply roles took its toll on the finished work. I think it would have gone better if someone else either directed or wrote the script. It seems Norton got too inside the movie with all this work and consequently lost objectivity. Chinatown is similar to Motherless Brooklyn, but Robert Towne’s carefully written script, combined with Roman Polanski’s direction, and the all around wonderful cast, puts Chinatown in a whole other category.

But see it for the good acting that there is, the nostalgic look of the 50s , and Edward Norton’s achievement as a quadruple hyphenate.


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