Movie review / ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ (M)

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Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Edward Norton in “Motherless Brooklyn”.

“Motherless Brooklyn” (M) ****

EDWARD Norton directs this 1950s crime thriller with a screenplay that’s his adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel.

As well, Norton plays Lionel, a private investigator leading a team of operatives under a corporate structure led by Frank (Bruce Willis) who meets a violent end toward the end of what in earlier times might have been called the first reel. 

But the spectre of Frank’s wisdom and experience re-appear frequently to guide Lionel through the trickier corners of an investigation into corporate and local governmental corruption. 

As New York’s post-war population grows and car numbers increase (the film’s collection of ’50s cars will bring tears of nostalgic joy to Yank Tank buffs), people from the hinterland will need more crossings of the mighty Hudson River for their daily commute. Developer Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) has a vision for bridges and freeways.

Entangled in the arguments about the city’s future infrastructure is a story that takes account of its current problems. Renewal programs affect the city’s poor, especially the Afro-Americans who provide a major cohort of the city’s manual workers. 

Complicating Lionel’s life is the neurological condition called Tourette’s Syndrome. While his intellect functions normally, Tourettes afflicts his body in ways that unaware observers might think demonstrate a mental illness. Not so, in the film any more than in the real world. On screen, Tourette’s symptoms take a little getting used to. It’s to Norton’s credit that as well as masterminding the whole film, he doesn’t ask the audience to let them overburden their attention.

“Motherless Brooklyn” runs for 144 minutes. Once its rhythm settles down after an opening that gives little away about where it’s likely to be going, it tells the story with workmanlike attention to detail. Some of the details deliver agreeable surprises. In a nightclub where a black American band makes great music; you might wonder how actor Michael Kenneth Williams can play both a horn and a character so well. The closing credits clarify the matter. Winton Marsalis. 

Gugu Mbatha-Raw provides the film with a sweet feminine interest and Willem Dafoe plays an architect whose moral compass is at odds with his tycoon brother. 

While “Motherless Brooklyn” tells a New York story, its theme could reflect possibilities in any major city where the local government allows sneaky practices to grow. It’s compelling entertainment.

At Dendy, Palace Electric

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"Motherless Brooklyn" (M) ****
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Dougal Macdonald
“CityNews” film reviewer

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