I’m always ready for a good period piece, and anyone who knows me can tell you that I’ll be there with bells on if it’s set in the middle of the twentieth century. Now, I’ll admit, I had few expectations walking into Motherless Brooklyn, the Edward Norton led neo-noir is drifting into theaters at a busy time of the year, but it seems all my skepticism was misplaced.
Motherless Brooklyn follows Lionel — played by Edward Norton— a private investigator in 1950s New York City. When his mentor and protector Frank —Bruce Willis— is killed, he throws himself into the task of solving the mysterious murder. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Willem Dafoe, Alec Baldwin and Bobby Cannavale co-star. Norton directs the film from his own script.
To dive straight in, Motherless Brooklyn brings a fascinating discussion in the character of a Lionel. The character suffers from Tourette’s syndrome, a topic which is made clear in the film’s marketing. In the contemporary media climate, this can be a potentially loaded issue. I myself was even worried how this would be handled on-screen.
The subject of Tourette’s is a challenging one in Hollywood, as more often than not, the affliction is played for laughs. I do not have experience with Tourettes; however, as the narrative plays out, Norton seems to be handling the subject matter, and the character construction with respect. Norton dives into Lionel’s layers, showing not only the quirks of the character, but also the sub-conscious effects on him and how he tries to remedy his problems. The chemistry Norton forms with Mbatha-Raw are particularly sweet and poignant as he struggles with how his verbal ticks effect their relationship.
This movie could experience some struggles with the wrong audience due to Lionel’s Tourettes. There were a number of moments which played like laugh lines and had the audience chuckling— at the expense of the character. The film is a rather heavy neo-noir drama and this shows the damage that Hollywood’s handling of Tourette’s syndrome has inflicted. While it is regrettable that we — once again— see an actor portraying a character like this; rather than giving a chance to an unknown performer who might have Tourettes, Norton gives the subject ample respect, and it shows on screen.
The supporting cast backing up Norton is rock solid as well and elevates the movie to a new level. Willem Dafoe is a force of nature— we know this. Alec Baldwin? Same. Bobby Cannavale is a performer who keeps impressing me, and I always love to see more from him. While he’s still very much in his usual character— it works. Are you listening Hollywood? Let’s get him a lead.
Ultimately, the biggest opportunity is that Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Laura doesn’t have a heck of a lot to do. She wears amazing clothes— I want that wardrobe, by the way— and she plays incredibly well off Norton. However, this doesn’t change the fact that she is primarily a plot device. What makes it more painful is that her character is incredibly capable. She even tells Lionel that she’s a college educated lawyer going for the bar. The movie could have so easily used this, but she remains largely a passive figure for things to happen to.
However, Motherless Brooklyn is a classic work of neo-noir from Norton as a director. His inspiration is clearly the 1940s film noir movement, with a bit of 1970s neo-noir thrown in. Edward Norton does Chinatown!
This is Norton’s second outing as a director after 2000’s Keeping the Faith. The sophomore effort is reminiscent of the classic cinema of the post- World War II era. Thematically, his script is a fascinating study as well, serving as a direct examination of masculinity in immediate post-war period.
This isn’t the candy-colored pop culture typically associated with the television of the era. This is a completely different world. The war is still a large presence in society, and each of these men are dealing with the resulting stress in their own way. In this period following the war a traumatized society was struggling to return to normalcy and while a great many women were struggling with the battles surrounding Rosie the Riveter and gender roles, millions of servicemen were struggling under the weight of society’s expectations on them. Norton’s script is a smart one, and paints a picture of the wounded masculinity of this era, a discussion which is rarely had.
In his most recent directorial effort, Edward Norton crafts an elegant neo-noir in Motherless Brooklyn. The intricate character study not only captures the depth of the evolution happening in the years following World War II, but telling an interesting an entertaining story.
Motherless Brooklyn opens in theaters around the country this week.
A film nerd from my earliest years watching Abbott and Costello, that eventually translated to a Master’s Degree in Film History. I spend my time working on my fiction projects in all their forms, as well as covering film and television.
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