[Screen It]


(2019) (Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw) (R)

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Drama: In 1950s New York, a man suffering from Tourette Syndrome tries to figure out who killed his private detective boss.
It's the 1950s and Lionel Essrog (EDWARD NORTON) works in New York City -- along with Tony Vermonte (BOBBY CANNAVALE), Danny Fantl (DALLAS ROBERTS), and Gilbert Coney (ETHAN SUPLEE) -- for private detective Frank Minna (BRUCE WILLIS). When the latter ends up murdered, Lionel -- who suffers from Tourette Syndrome and some form of OCD -- takes it upon himself to figure out who's responsible. With a photographic memory and using Frank's last words, Lionel starts his investigation.

That eventually leads him to community activists Gabby Horowitz (CHERRY JONES) and Laura Rose (GUGU MBATHA-RAW). The latter's family owns a jazz joint in Harlem frequented by famous musicians, such as a renowned (but never named) trumpet player (MICHAEL K. WILLIAMS). Those women and others are protesting the "slum cleansing" being carried out by the city under the auspices of city planner Moses Randolph (ALEC BALDWIN) who's built parks, bridges and more across the city.

They believe his latest neighborhood condemnation is racially motivated and it's brought out other protestors such as Moses' partially estranged brother, Paul (WILLEM DAFOE). With Lionel and Danny getting beaten up and others ending up dead, Lionel realizes he's onto something big as he continues to dig deep to find out who killed his former boss and why.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
During my fifty-five laps around the sun, I've met all sorts of people who make a living doing all sorts of jobs. Many of those vocations are run-of-the-mill, but some are unique such as a nuclear reactor simulator salesman, a private pilot for a once-world famous CEO, and another guy who does security detail planning for billionaires. And, of course, there was Oprah.

Yet, despite the variety of people and their jobs, not to mention the preponderance of the following in TV shows and movies, I've never met a private detective. Then again, maybe I have and they're so good at it I simply didn't connect the dots. In any event, it seems like a cool job -- at least as portrayed by Hollywood -- until one realizes the long boring hours that are occasionally interrupted by potentially dangerous and even life-threatening developments.

The latest such fictional portrayal of such private eyes is "Motherless Brooklyn," the oddly titled adaptation of Jonathan Lethem's 1999 novel of the same name (which I have not read, so comparisons to the source material are moot). The film is a passion project for Edward Norton who not only appears as the protagonist, but also produced, directed and wrote the screenplay.

In doing the latter, he's moved the time frame from Prince's "party like it's" time back into the 1950s in New York, although it actually feels like it takes place years before that, what with all of the usual trappings and dialogue we used to see in such productions. And yes, that even includes the obligatory use of voice-over dialogue as supplied by Norton's character, Lionel Essrog, as he investigates the recent murder of his boss (Bruce Willis).

Using the last mumble jumble of words from that man, other scant clues and a photographic memory, the protagonist starts snooping and digging around, eventually leading him to a social activist (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who's protesting the "slum cleansing" and gentrification of neighborhoods of color by a builder (Alec Baldwin) who also just so happens to be the untouchable planning commissioner with a partially estranged brother (Willem Dafoe) who's also not pleased with his sibling's actions.

While Lionel's retrospective narration is flawless in delivery, his character in the moment suffers from Tourette's (and some OCD) which puts a fresh spin on a well-worn archetype. That said, and notwithstanding a brief jazz club scene where his sudden outbursts seem like they might lead to trouble, I think Norton missed a golden opportunity here for some decent "oh no" suspenseful moments where the character needs to remain quiet but his verbally-based behavioral hiccups threaten to draw attention to him.

Nonetheless, and despite what I felt was somewhat of a rocky start in terms of some awkward tonal shifts, Norton does a decent job wearing his various hats while bringing this tale to the big screen, and I feel the film gets better as it goes, even with it clocking in at a bit too long of a running time of 144 or so minutes. Putting enough of a fresh coat of cinematic paint on a well-worn if rarely seen nowadays genre (and vocation), and featuring strong performances from the leads, "Motherless Brooklyn" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed October 28, 2019 / Posted November 1, 2019

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