Nerdlocker Movie Review: Motherless Brooklyn


Like any genre film, having an original voice can be a tricky thing to pull off. Film noir is no different having its many clichés to either avoid or make your own. The voiceover of the main protagonist as he audibly navigates a world he’s disgusted by. The dame finding herself in over her head. The all powerful antagonist who fears no one and gets away with everything. We’ve seen these things before, it’s all in the matter with which a movie approaches these ideas that makes all the difference. L.A. Confidential is one of my favorite noir films replete with fascinating characters, an intriguing storyline, and powerful violence that really brings home the idea of an unforgiving world. Motherless Brooklyn is a film that knows the boxes to check but not necessarily in the correct order. It won’t go down as a classic but it’s a viable attempt at capturing the tone and progression of a mystery crime thriller.

One thing it certainly nailed is the cast bringing a veritable who’s who into the mix. Edward Norton wrote, directed and stars in the film with Bruce Willis in support along with Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, Bobby Cannavale, and the effervescent Gugu Mbatha-Raw who is an absolute scene stealer.

This particular story is about Lionel Essrog (Norton), private detective and sufferer of Tourette’s Syndrome trying to make sense of the murder of his boss and best friend, Frank Minna (Willis). For all the shortcomings that Tourette’s forces on him his greatest strength is also a result of the disorder that allows him to remember… everything. From the tone in someone’s voice to the look on their face when they spoke he can recall it at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately for Lionel, with Frank out of the picture no one is around to protect him from the harsher realities Frank once shielded him from, to a certain extent at least. He must now face the world alone with an affliction no one really understands, not even Lionel. As with any noir, betrayal is inevitable and often leads Lionel into turmoil he’s usually ill-prepared for. Disorder or not, Lionel is smart and determined to right the wrongs committed against him and his friend, no matter the danger, no matter the cost.

Two particular things stood out for me with this movie and that’s the musical score and cinematography. The score is one of calm but never lacking in intrigue as if to say something is or is about to happen. Often in noir those happenings are a solemn affair again pointing to a larger picture of a hopeless place. And I must speak from a personal place when I say the sound of a lone trumpet seemingly meandering to no exact destination is something that lifts my soul; it makes me both heartbroken and grateful for that specific moment in time where nothing else matters but that instrument and its player creating something profound. I think I might be a jazz fan… huh. Anyway, the cinematography…

Multiple times I had this feeling as the camera kept its distance of watching a play on Broadway. There’s a disconnect because obviously the audience can’t be on the stage but the intimacy isn’t necessarily lost either. The sets feel big and in place for us to see all of, to engulf the imagination into the scenario of, for example, a group of private detectives discussing who “whacked” their boss. The office is laid out and the camera sits back wide to show where everyone is and where their desks are. It creates the idea that these characters are familiar with the setting but the scenario they find themselves in is anything but normal. Not only this but the exterior shots showcase a love for not only the city but the era of 1950’s New York. There’s a beauty in it all, even in the darker, seedier moments in back alleys, it’s all gorgeous in its own right.

As everything comes together, a tremendous cast, a soulful score crying out over a beautifully captured New York, Motherless Brooklyn becomes everything it can hope to be. The pacing is an issue at times as is the runtime at nearly two and a half hours. Often times it feels like the Lionel character is spinning his wheels without gaining any real traction. Overall this is a viable but lacking noir drama that focuses on overcoming and persevering in the face of insurmountable odds, that of a mental disorder or a corrupt city official with a God complex. While there’s nothing glaringly awful about this movie, it never seems to rise up to the sum of its parts. With such a phenomenal cast and score and solid cinematography you could expect more. At the end of the day Motherless Brooklyn is a solid effort worth the watch although will likely never be spoken of in the same breath as the greats that came before it.

Rated R For: language throughout including some sexual references, brief drug use, and violence
Runtime: 144 minutes
After Credits Scene: No
Genre: Crime, Drama
Starring: Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Willem Dafoe
Directed By: Edward Norton

Out of 5 Nerdskulls
Story: 3.5/ Acting: 4/ Directing: 3.5/ Visuals: 4

Buy to Own: Yes

Check out the trailer below:

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Chase Gifford

"Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world"-Jean-Luc Godard