Here is another film I completely missed when it was initially released back in 2019. and it took me this long to finally watch it.
Motherless Brooklyn was a passion project for Edward Norton that took almost two decades to bring to life. Norton directed this movie and wrote the adaptation — a loose adaption that is, from the Jonathan Lethem 1999 novel of the same name.
The story is set in 1950s NYC, during a time when the city was run by a non-elected official Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin). This character was inspired by real-life New York city planner Robert Moses who from 1930-1968 had uncontested authoritarian power over NYC and NY state—and made every significant decision about infrastructure in New York. Like where the roads went, where bridges were built, which buildings were torn down to make way for developing projects, and so on. Moses used shady tactics masquerading as “community improvement” programs to displace poor and minority communities. Using “Slum Clearing” programs to condemn whole sections of the city—evict everyone who lived there and turn those empty neighborhoods over to his private developers to build whatever he wanted.
The housing policies created and enforced by Moses were based on racist principles. Even today, in our current timeline, there is a direct connection in most of the gentrification policies and practices plaguing Black and minority communities throughout New York City with some of the same methods that Moses implemented.
and by the way…. Moses was also responsible for the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn.
All of that makes for a pretty compelling story; however, the movie suffers from the plot’s ambitiousness.
Lionel (Edward Norton) is a private detective who witnesses his boss Frank (Bruce Willis) getting murdered. Frank was Lionel’s mentor, a father figure, and closest friend. Lionel suffers from Tourette syndrome, which made life pretty tough for Lionel, considering this movie is set during a time when doctors had not yet diagnosed the condition by name. Norton’s portrayal of Lionel’s Tourette syndrome outbursts reminded me of how he delivered similar outbursts in the movie The Score (2003).
As Lionel digs deeper, he discovers more dark truths about conspiracies and sinister plots involving high-level officials in city government. The story moves pretty slow, but it works because it allows the audience to follow along with Lionel’s detective work, discovering things at the same time as Lionel does.
They tried hard to recreate the look and vibe of New York city of the 50s, but I never really felt like I was in the era while watching it. Many of the location settings felt contemporary and did not capture the essence of the 50s. The soundtrack, however, is terrific, and the Cinematography by Dick Pope is remarkable.
The all-star ensemble cast is incredible. Alec Baldwin delivers a powerful performance; his lines and dialogue are some of this movie’s best moments. Willem Dafoe (Paul Randolph) is brilliant, adding some background to the Moses Randolph character. There is a memorable scene at a diner between Dafoe and Norton that stands out to me.
I always enjoy watching Bobby Cannavale (Tony) in this type of role, but I felt like his character needed more screen time. The late great Michael k. Williams (Trumpet Man) is solid as usual. Coincidentally, both Cannavale and Williams were two of my favorites on Boardwalk Empire.
I really wanted to like this movie, and in a way, I kinda did. But I came out feeling a bit underwhelmed. Many things work pretty well here, and a few things did not work for me.
In any case, Motherless Brooklyn is an entertaining and ambitious film that merits some attention.
Three out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿
Motherless Brooklyn (2019).