Set in a tough but glamorous moment in time, “MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN” follows Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) after the murder of his closest friend and colleague Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Lionel is hellbent on unraveling the reason and discovering why Frank was killed and who is the killer. He finds himself on a paper trail across Brooklyn, never giving up on his plan. Being that Lionel is someone someone who also happens to suffer from Tourettes or Tertz Syndrome, and other verbal and motor tics, yet is endowed with perfect pitch of a memory that forgets nothing, makes him a true asset in the world of being part of Minna’s boys – the team of the Private Investigation office of Frank Minna. He is a character that has a lot of depth to get behind, and being one that needs a great performance in order to be authentic. And we are given that performance in spades, not only by Norton, but the fantastic entire ensemble cast of this film.
The script that is taken from the book of the same title by Jonathan Lethem, is directed and written by Norton as well, and is where this film truly shines the most in film noir context. Norton has written it to set in Brooklyn in the 1950’s – in a New York that power-hungry people like Robert Moses are transforming, a New York that feeds his autocratic inclination, as the power behind the throne. The indiscriminate use by the city power brokers of the time of ’eminent domain’ in what is subjectively, the ethnic cleansing of the working poor, the blacks and the Puerto Ricans, who are all subject to losing their homes on a whim, to the pretending to ever provide them with places to relocate. The villain here is Moses “Moe” Randolph, a not so thinly-veiled character that is modeled on Robert Moses, and played well by Alec Baldwin. But pay attention as it can seem a bit overwhelming and convoluted in the beginning, giving the feeling that if you miss even one moment, you will lose track of the story line and seemingly every singular piece is of importance as each scene details in the telling of this tale.
Murder, greed, sibling rivalry and treachery, mafia-like tactics, along with adultery, corruption, jazz, taut racial relations, and resistance from below and the stone-willed determination of Norton to put together and solve the disparate pieces of this puzzle that is ‘Homeless Brooklyn’. A sure fire cast of supporting characters starting with Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Laura Rose, who is not just a woman of mixed race here, but playing an educated, strong African American women of the time period, a role written in by Norton specifically to shine through to help those in the thresholds of despair facing eviction. Willem Dafoe as Paul Randolph, the brilliant engineer brother of the King Moe himself, yet who couldn’t be more of a polar opposite of his brother. The always spectacular Cherry Jones who gives grit & spit to her portrayal of Gabby Horowitz, Bobby Cannavale, who has been stepping up his game in good supporting characters in films this year is Tony Vermonte, the guy who wants to take over leading the agency here – but has a second play in motion being he’s side-stepping out with Julia Minna, (Leslie Mann), Frank’s wife. And how can you not enjoy seeing Michael Kenneth Williams as a mellow jazz musician (even if I always secretly wish he would reprise his Omar character in The Wire). Ethan Suplee, Dallas Roberts, Josh Pais, Fisher Stevens, and Peter Lewis help round out this ensemble cast that seemingly are all so far apart at the beginning of this film, as we watch only to see that all the pieces slowly fall into place one by one, showing how really very connected they are and making 144 minutes fly by at a fast clip. And what would this film be if not with it’s many street scenes, as even the city – Brooklyn – ably stars as itself.
‘Homeless Brooklyn’ speaks to the politics of our day, nonetheless the moral of justice is frayed in a jagged pattern. It’s perfect film noir fodder: power and corruption, progress vs. community, race and a bit of sex, all with a jazz score in the background. And sometimes it’s just funny.
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Media Review Screening: Monday, November 11, 2019 ~ Courtesy of Warner Bros.
“MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN” IS NOW PLAYING IN THEATERS // WORLDWIDE RELEASE TO FOLLOW
Post Q & A with Ed Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw:
It’s always a wonderful experience to have post Q & A’s with the actor/directors etc.. as they can provide a completely different view into a film that we might never get the chance to know about. Everything from costuming to the music to budgeting, productions shoots and insights of the characters and those that make those characters come to life. This one was just exactly that.
The Q & A started off with questioning Ed Norton about changing the book from what it was to a completely different setting of Brooklyn in the 1950’s and the challenges that gave him. Norton, followed through that it took him years to create this and accepting the challenge to make it what he truly wanted in film noir, was one he really worked hard for as so many didn’t take it seriously in financing etc.
Asking Gugu Mbatha-Raw about her character which wasn’t even in the book and was it harder to shape her by not having a book to read like the others did on their characters. – She liked that her character was a strong, educated woman in the 50’s where things like that were rare occurrences. Gugu also noted she was the only Brit actor and being around these top notch terrific theater actors helped make her in so many ways with accent, dress, etc in helping shape her character
Norton spoke about how due to the small 26 million dollar budget, all the actors took deferred salaries in order to make the film possible. Almost all of them being top NYC theater actors that Norton has known for years, such as Peter Lewis with whom he’d been in plays with since his 20’s and was his scene study actor here. Due to the detailed speeches and the short 46 day shoot, Norton needed to know that they could do it. No mistakes, no time for rehearsals etc..had to be able to walk in and do it. So as Norton noted, he is forever in their debt and if you see him in the coming years in something that you are wondering ‘why is he even in this movie – take for instance a bit role as the mayor in Die Hard 8 – well he is paying off his debt. – to much laughter from the audience.