Fast-Paced Detective Yarn
The cars! It’s the beautiful cars that make us realize we are in the 1950s in the Edward Norton-directed crime thriller Motherless Brooklyn. Warner Bros. studio did a fantastic job gathering up fine examples of Chevrolets, Plymouths, the fabulous step-down Hudson, and even a perfectly intact 1939 Dodge. Although there are too many cars on the streets of New York to mention them all, car buffs will be in seventh Heaven trying to identify all the 65 year-old + cars on the screen.
Ed Norton, who wrote the screenplay from Jonathan Lethem’s novel, apparently had a devil of a time getting studios to finance this crime drama about a crooked politician with amazing similarities to someone sitting in the Oval Office. Not only did Norton write the screenplay, he directed the film and also plays the leading role. An amazing accomplishment -- and the outrageously talented man has created a new crime classic to join other film noir treats from past years. When you see the film, you may agree Norton could be a triple-threat contender for an Oscar® nomination in all three categories. Oh, and he also produced the film. He must be an exhausted wreck.
Lionel, Norton’s character, works for gumshoe Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who runs a sort of down-at-the-heels investigative office of private detectives. Others in the appropriately seedy office (kudos to production designer Beth Mickle and set decorator Kara Zeigon) are: the very capable actor Dallas Roberts as Danny; darkly sexy Bobby Cannavale as Tony; and loveably chubby Ethan Suplee as Gilbert, the driver. Minna seems to have gotten himself involved in nefarious activities involving dangerous goons who soon remove him from the scene by opening up some air-conditioning holes in his stomach. Because Frank is Lionel’s best friend, he goes on a campaign to find out who bumped him off. Willis has taken a small but significant part in the film as the entire story revolves around him and his previous activities. He is a welcome addition and dominates in what is essentially a glorified cameo role. Plus, he looks very dapper in top coats, three-piece suits and a smart hat by costume designer Amy Roth.
Norton plays his character Lionel as one who has Tourette’s Syndrome. Lionel has unexpected outbursts of rapid-fire sentences or phrases, head twists and sometimes shouts. Norton captures these characteristics perfectly which makes Lionel a stand-out. Although Lionel is also a difficult character to make likeable, Norton manages to make him not only endearing, but smart as well.
The gist of the story involves Lionel being determined to find out who rubbed out Frank Minna. What circumstances and who caused Frank to be drilled? What Lionel doesn’t know is that Frank got involved with a shady group who also run the city. Strong man Moses Randolph, played by a forceful Alec Baldwin, may be the cause of Frank’s death, but Lionel must find out more about the crooked mob boss who hides behind the curtain of respectability.
The plot seems rather convoluted as well as confusing in parts. Adding to the intriguing plot is the fabulous Willem Dafoe, a peripheral figure around mob boss Randolph as well as a thorn in his side. But why? We don’t find that out until the end. Another terrific actor is Broadway star Cherry Jones, who plays Mrs. Moskowitz, an activist and agitator for people’s rights. Again why? It all comes together as plot twists are revealed slowly. The beautiful Gugu Mbatha-Raw pops in for more intrigue. Actress Leslie Mann does a significant cameo as Frank’s indifferent wife. Too bad she’s sabotaged by having to wear a cheap looking, blond, dime-store fright wig that does not fit her natural coloring.
Although the movie is long, the narrative moves along swiftly because of all the plot points popping up to drive the film to its conclusion. Some breathtakingly beautiful camera work is done by cinematographer Dick Pope, who can use a puddle in the gutter to mirror the surroundings as though it were a painting. Also, there is some scary, seat-of-your-pants camera work in chase scenes, as in the opening sequence, that may pop your incisions.
Still, all the credit must go to Mr. Norton, who wrote and directed and starred in the film. He and casting director Avy Kaufman have chosen some of the finest actors in America today to advance the story line with their individually unique characters. Even the actors who play smaller parts, such as Ethan Suplee, Fisher Stevens, Dallas Roberts, Michael Kenneth Williams and Josh Pais are commendable.
This movie is one of the best in a year of unmemorable films. It brings back memories of all those detective films we have enjoyed through the years. Norton has done a fine job. His Motherless Brooklyn is a terrifically enjoyable movie. Go see it!
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated “R” for language throughout including some sexual references, brief drug use, and violence.)