REVIEW: Motherless Brooklyn is a wonderful, albeit unheralded, surprise

Motherless Brooklyn is not only one of the best films of the year but it features an amazing performance by director-writer Edward Norton.

The term “gumshoe” not only describes the genre of this neo-noir detective story but it also pertains to our gum-chewing protagonist, Lionel, whose nickname, “Motherless Brooklyn,” was conferred upon him as an orphan boy. Afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome, Lionel chews gum to stabilize his errant, erratic thought processes. Indeed, Tourettes is not just a gimmick but an important element in the storyline. It not only inflects Lionel’s speech with unpredictable non-sequitors and bursts of profanity, but also fuels his obsession with detail and order, which eventually enables him to sort out the byzantine complexities of the murder mystery at the story’s heart.

When we first see Lionel, he’s picking at the loose threads of the cuff of his sweater. A perfect representative anecdote for the relentless way he picks apart the loose threads of the plot’s puzzle and weaves the strands back into a coherent solution.

Lionel works for a smart detective named Frank Minna. When Frank is killed during an aborted investigation, Lionel sets to work to solve and avenge his mentor’s death. As he seeks out suspects and suffers periodic ambushes from bad guys (a standard trope in detective noirs), he uncovers rampant corruption in the mean streets of New York City. At the center of the maze of corruption is Moses Randolph, a power-hungry builder who razes lower working-class districts and erects bridges in his unrelenting drive for power and influence. A racist and sexist sociopath who cares nothing about human values, Moses declaims, “I don’t obey the rules, I’m ahead of them.”

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Motherless Brooklyn is a wonderful, albeit unheralded, surprise. Here is a New York City in the late 1950s rich in period detail. As is proper to all urban noirs, Lionel’s odyssey takes from glitzy City Hall to the seedy back alleys, trash-strewn streets and smoke-filled jazz joints — all  important scenic characters on their own.

In one of the finest onscreen performances of the year, Edward Norton invests his Tourettes-afflicted character with an endearing, even delicate deadpan charm and sincerity.  A weirdly comic tone prevails; and we never know when a sudden outburst in speech or behavior will disrupt the action, either exposing him to danger or propelling him further into the secrets of the convoluted plot. The affinities between Motherless Brooklyn and other classic noirs, particularly Chinatown and The Two Jakes, are apparent enough and have been commented on by many critics. So, let’s leave that alone and just savor a film that is whip-smart and visually delectable in its own sordid majesty.

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Written and directed by Edward Norton, based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem. Starring Edward Norton as Lionel, Alec Baldwin as Moses Randolph, and Bruce Willis as Frank Minna.

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