NEW YORK (CNS) — Edward Norton wrote, directed and stars in “Motherless Brooklyn” (Warner Bros.), an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel. The result is a top-notch crime drama whose sound basic values are only tarnished by the gritty vocabulary of its script.
Norton plays Lionel Essrog, a private detective in 1950s New York whose Tourette’s syndrome is offset by a phenomenal memory for detail. After his friend, mentor and senior partner, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), is murdered while investigating shady real estate deals, Lionel pursues the case in the hope of bringing Frank’s killers to justice.
The hunt that follows finds him crossing paths with Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), a powerful civil servant obviously modeled on Robert Moses (1888-1981) as well as with Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a community activist opposed to Randolph’s latest project. Other colorful figures he encounters include gifted but down-on-his-luck architect Paul (sharp, energetic Willem Dafoe) and an unnamed trumpet player (Michael Kenneth Williams) reminiscent of music great Miles Davis.
As the movie’s plot twists and turns over a long running time, viewers will appreciate its evocation of film noir atmospherics, its powerful jazz score and the innocence of the romance that ensues once Lionel and Laura fall for each other. Pro-life moviegoers will also welcome the sympathy Norton wins for its afflicted but good-hearted protagonist.
Lionel not only has to contend with his “condition,” as he calls it, an illness that — if the impression given by the screenplay is to be believed — was much less easily recognized and understood 60 years ago, but with the legacy of being an orphan. His recollections of life in his Catholic orphanage, where Frank first became his defender, incorporate the familiar caricature of the ruler-wielding nun.
Along with the mild bashing of women religious, many in the audience may be put off by the heavy-handed exchanges about the nature of power that spring from the presence of Randolph in the mix. While this sort of clunky writing is confined to a couple of scenes, vulgarity, by contrast, pervades the dialogue.
Presumably, this is in aid of the hardscrabble, tough-guy-in-a-fedora mood Norton seeks to conjure. But he lays it on pretty thickly.
Overall, however, “Motherless Brooklyn” has a good heart and a sound moral compass.
The film contains stylized violence with occasional gore, semi-medicinal drug use, frequent profanities, a few milder oaths and pervasive rough and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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