Sunday, March 08, 2020

Motherless Brooklyn: Mystery, Suspense Done Right

Movie Review: Motherless Brooklyn (2019)
Version: Library DVD

Frank, Lionel, Tony, and some other guys grew up together in an orphanage and when they grew up, Frank looked after them. He started a detective agency and gave them all jobs. Frank (Bruce Willis) especially looked after Lionel (Edward Norton), who had a pronounced case of Tourette's Syndrome. They got along fine until one day Frank ran into a juicy case that got him killed, and Lionel became determined to solve the murder of his only real friend. That's the main plot behind Motherless Brooklyn, a steely, gritty, suspenseful mystery done up in the film noir style by also producer, writer, and director Edward Norton.

Also features superb performances by Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Laura, the dame who always figures in a classic film noir, Alec Baldwin as Moses Randolph, the powerful big-city boss who clashes with the hero, Bobby Cannavale as Tony, one of the guys who we think is Lionel's ally, and Willem Dafoe as Paul, the guy operating in the shadows. Norton also puts in a fine performance, but I can't help but wonder if it would have been better if he had cut back on the Tourette's some. It seems a bit too put on, in the same way Dustin Hoffman's disabilities were seen as too put on in Rain Man (1988). Norton's Lionel apologizes throughout the story for his outbursts, but they seem robotic and I don't buy it. They just don't seem sincere. Nice try, though. Still, the film is a good mixture of mystery and suspense. Baldwin seethes with power and anger and danger. Dafoe sneaks around like a seedy little mouse that makes you want to squash him. Great cast!

If this film had been made in the heyday of film noir, it would have been produced in black and white; it would have been very dark and shot in stark night scenes. This was, of course, shot in color but in drab day tones and in seedy 1950s settings. You get this dank, musty, dangerous feel with each frame, and that's the way it should be. Kudos for the atmosphere.

On the whole, while I'm not a fan of film noir, I came to be a fan of Motherless Brooklyn. Norton done me right by it. He will do you right by it, too.

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