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“Motherless Brooklyn” nails neo-noir

Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures
Cast: Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Willem Dafoe, Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, Cherry Jones, Bobby Cannavale, Ethan Suplee, Michael Kenneth Williams, Leslie Mann
Director: Edward Norton
Release Date: Nov. 1, 2019

If casting directors could win Oscars, Avy Kaufman would be a shoe-in for her work on last year’s neo-noir “Motherless Brooklyn.”

Bruce Willis as a combat-vet-turned-private-eye? Genius. Willem Dafoe as the man who knows too much? Perfect. Leslie Mann as a brassy blond shrew? Brilliant. Even the one bit of casting that could seem a bit self-indulgent- director Edward Norton starring as a private eye with Tourette syndrome- works like gangbusters.

If you’re going to make a “Chinatown”-aping film noir in 2019, these are the folks to make it with. They devour the dialogue (also written by Norton) like they haven’t eaten in weeks.

And really just about everything works stylistically in “Motherless Brooklyn”: not just the cast, but the jazzy score and the evocative production and costume design. It looks and feels exactly how this sort of thing should look and feel.

Norton plays Lionel Essrog, one of “Minna’s Men,” a group of private eyes working under the tutelage of Frank Minna (Willis) in mid-1950’s Brooklyn. Minna’s working a case that goes sideways fast.

“I got through Guadalcanal without a scratch and then I get shot with my own gun?” Minna growls. “In Queens?!?”

Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures

Minna doesn’t make it, but Essrog starts digging into the case- one that involves (among many other things) city planner Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) and his plan to relocate hundreds of poor- and predominately African-American- families in the name of economic progress and prosperity.

“He’s the hero of the public who hates people,” Lionel’s informant Paul (Defoe) says. “When someone isn’t seen for who they truly are, that’s a very dangerous thing.”

There’s a dame (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), because as Lionel astutely notes, there is always a dame in these sorts of stories. But having her be a mixed-race lawyer fighting for social justice is a nice wrinkle that you wouldn’t have seen in the Humphrey Bogart days.

Norton saves the juiciest role for himself, and he pulls off an impressive balancing act- making Lionel funny, sympathetic and achingly sad all at the same time. The rest of the cast don’t play characters so much as types, but they play the types well and imbue them with the charisma that only great actors can provide.

Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures

Daniel Pemberton’s jazzy score gives the proceedings a nice level of class while production designer Beth Mickle and costume designer Amy Roth provide authenticity.

Norton’s script merges the Jonathan Lethem novel of the same name with some real-life New York history – Baldwin’s character is a thinly veiled version of real-life controversial city planner Robert Moses- and “Motherless Brooklyn” is a film that strives not just for style but for substance- taking on such big issues as institutionalized racism and civic corruption.

But if the script could charitably be called “narratively dense,” it’s also pretty confusing at times, and some of the bigger messages get lost in the morass. It would have been nice if Norton and editor Joe Klotz could have cut through the weeds a bit in order to bring the story into a clearer focus.

Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures

As it is, the film is not for everyone, and the complex plotting, slow pace and lengthy running time will likely scare off some potential viewers. But patient viewers will be rewarded with a thoughtful and well-acted story.

Like its private eye protagonist, “Motherless Brooklyn” (rated R for language throughout including some sexual references, brief drug use and violence) is both smart and stylish. That’s a rare combo that you shouldn’t underestimate or overlook – in a person or a motion picture.

About the author

Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves.  He can be reached at




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