.by Alan Yudman
What determines power? Is it how much money you make or how much influence you wield? That argument is the heart of MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN. But the soul is Roman Polanski’s CHINATOWN. Edward Norton’s passion project is to New York what Polanski’s movie is to Los Angeles.
MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN details how the building of New York City in the 1950’s was not based solely on some American dream philosophy. It was built on Robert Moses’ (wonderfully portrayed as Moses Randolph in the film my Alec Baldwin) quest for power based on influence and control and unapologetic racism. But that racism is belied by revelations about the parentage of one of the main characters. Even that relationship is revealed to be about exerting power.
Norton is a private detective named Lionel Essrog who is try8ing to find out who killed his boss Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Lionel has Tourette’s syndrome which manifests itself as a kind of verbal riffing and mild tics. Lionel is somewhat affectionately called “freak show” by his fellow detectives, but he uses it to lower expectations because he is the most competent investigator in the firm. He has a perfect memory and while he is constantly apologizing for it, he knows it is his advantage.
Lionel’s investigation leads him to Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a lawyer employed by an organization trying to keep the corrupt New York government from displacing minorities from their homes so Randolph can build highways, bridges and tunnels.
Every relationship and discovery connects each character to the larger story. I never found myself asking, “why is this person important to the story?” That is saying something because there are intertwining storylines and plots. A lesser talent would have trouble keeping all these plates spinner, but Norton pulls it off. I find it kind of remarkable he wrote such a good screenplay, directed it and does such a wonderful job as Lionel. Norton does a great job slowly peeling the onion until we, along with Lionel, discover what is really going on here. Norton set the movie in the 1950’s so he could tell the story of the unseemly history of how New York was built.
The parallels to CHINATOWN are unmistakable. While the hidden story in that film is more demented, this one nods to a more familiar and pervasive racism which more audiences may recognize.
The acting is first rate. Mbatha-Raw is strong, yet vulnerable as Laura. Bobby Canavale is always good at playing the guy you know is going to betray someone. Michael Kenneth Williams plays a jazz trumpeter who identifies with Lionel’s broken brain because he sees himself in the same way. And speaking of Jazz, this film has an outstanding soundtrack that seamlessly combines known pieces with Daniel Pemberton’s score.
Norton’s commentary on power, how it corrupts everything it touches and how the powerful can be undone by their own faults and failings is right on topic for our current politics. And when a film can take a story set in a certain time and make it relevant to today’s reality, I view it as a monumental success