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Verbal Diarrhea: A Review Of 'Motherless Brooklyn'

Directing himself and a stellar cast, Edward Norton may have deviated from the source material, but his ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ is still eminently watchable.

When Jonathan Lethem’s novel, Motherless Brooklyn, first came out in 1999, I devoured the book, loving how his gumshoe, a Tourette’s syndrome-afflicted protagonist, interacted with modern-day New York. Strong in the messaging of the novel was how the gentrification of Manhattan by greedy developers often came at a high price, as existing communities were trampled on in the name of urban renewal.

Apparently, Edward Norton loved the book as well, optioning the rights to create a film adaptation, which finally reaches the screen after close to twenty years. Starring and directing himself, Norton has taken some liberties with the screenplay, transposing the story to the late 1950s, and merging some of the story with material from Robert Caro’s classic biography, The Power Broker. This 1950s shift works in the sense that the Raymond Chandler–type detectives of Lethem’s novel now seem more organic. And his Lionel Essrog is a subdued mess of ticks, involuntary exclamations, and repetitive mannerisms.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Alec Baldwin in Motherless Brooklyn
Laurie Rose (Mbatha-Raw) and Moses Randolph (Baldwin) | Warner Bros.

As for Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), the big bad real estate developer and parks commissioner, the transition to the 1950s can’t hide the fact that Norton is saying something about the Trump era. The speech that Randolph gives in the latter part of the film, as he confronts Lionel (Norton) in the public baths that he closes down for the early morning private use is vintage Donald Trump—and it’s probably no coincidence that it’s Baldwin, notorious for his SNL Trump impersonations, that’s been cast in this role.

Laurie Rose, a young female activist of African-American persuasion (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the guide, and ward, of Essrog, as he passes himself off as a reporter to get the scoop on what happened to the head of the detective agency he works for. We meet this father figure of Lionel’s, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), early on, and he casts a long shadow over the proceedings.

What surprised and delighted me about MB is that despite the attempt to make this a very stylized period drama/detective story, and the obvious desire to make statements about such weighty subjects as racism, inner city corruption, and the cover of gentrification; the film is very watchable and deadpan humor is introduced at every opportunity. Yes, it may depend on verbal exposition in order to convey the rather complex narrative strands, and how they fuse together for Lionel and Moses; but a little bit of attention to the film goes a long way in appreciating what was so special about the novel in the first place.

This is the old detective story and film noir given a stirring update. I know some critics complained about the length of the film, but honestly, I was entertained and didn’t feel the length all that much. And I loved how by the film’s end, we’re appreciating how the film is making a strong statement about Trump’s America, and why it’s so easy to be blinded by the shine, gloss, and promise.

Motherless Brooklyn will be in theaters nationwide on December 11.

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