Borrowing a smidgen of wiseacre snazziness from "The Maltese Falcon" (1941) and an acidic splash of scandal from "Chinatown" (1974), Edward Norton writes, directs and stars in the best film noir detective yarn to come down the cinema pike since "The Usual Suspects" (1995). And in the process, he probably puts himself in consideration for an Oscar via his Tourette syndrome-afflicted gumshoe, Lionel Essrog, deprived early in the doings of his only friend and mentor, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). So, we're talking loyalty, revenge and all the stumbling blocks those corrupt powers that be will toss in Lionel's way to deter his retribution, all done to the backdrop of society's worst ways on parade.
Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade described the ethos best upon the occasion of his partner's untimely death in the aforenoted "The Maltese Falcon," the one difference being that Spade, unlike Essrog, wasn't particularly fond of his colleague. Frank was everything to Lionel. As I believe it is instrumental in espousing the nature of duty and devotion, and simply because it's really cool, I'd like to share the paragraph: "When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it's bad business to let the killer get away with it. It's bad all around--bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere."
Of course, Bogey says it better than I, but I'm working on it. Yet no matter how well I get it, it's still not going to help me follow the labyrinthine twists and turns of this genre, of which "Motherless Brooklyn" boasts, well, a motherlode. If you're that particularly obnoxious sort who has to let everyone in the theater know your uncanny skill at guessing the plot, shh! But for my kindred spirits who, like me, can't figure these things out for the proverbial million dollars, you have to decide whether or not to trust that the director will ultimately tie things up in a manner that will win your satisfaction. I voted in the affirmative.
Naturally, a good part of acceding to the mystery ride is dependent on the verbal and visual filigree of the screenplay and how engaging the characterizations are. We soon care about the very likeable Lionel Essrog and want to learn more about him. We want to understand how he copes with his fascinatingly depicted condition, and ultimately hope that not only does he prevail in his mission, but that the challenge at hand proves a breakthrough, putting him closer to enjoying what the mainstream takes for granted. Psst. There's a touching love angle.
This then brings me to the political diatribe portion of my review with which regular readers of my tortured prose are no doubt familiar. Hey, if not now, when? I shudder to imagine the nature of the climate more deserving of an urgent, scathing protest. That said, you don't have to read too much into Alec Baldwin's Moses Randolph as he provides a mockingly astute monograph on the pathology of unchecked power: the need for it, the love of it, the disingenuous justification of it. While Baldwin constructs his egomaniac on the example of New York's Robert Moses, the "master builder" who transformed the city's infrastructure forevermore, we know who he's
really satirizing. He's had plenty of practice on "Saturday Night Live."
Played against a superbly recreated, 1950s milieu, replete with all the appurtenances suggesting the postwar grab for spoils and the realization of our mind-boggling ability to blow up the globe with one touch of a button, Lionel is the altruistic pilgrim in the new Sodom and Gomorrah. He is, by virtue of his condition, the unsullied outsider upon whom the fate of the commonweal rests.
In the process, as part and parcel of the recent proclivity of better films to rescue from the shaming shadows the numerous mental and physical impairments affecting our species, and educating the public to their characteristics, we learn a little about Tourette syndrome.
Suffering it firsthand, Lionel assumes an ambassadorship to explain it to those shocked or confused by the symptoms. He puts a face on it, and a life behind it.
Thus, while it is nowhere mandated that our movies should shine an illuminating light on the world's ills and, in two to three hours, suggest how we might cure them, it is nonetheless vicariously heartening when the medium does give it the old college try. In one big, albeit often perplexing swoop of the silver screen's magnanimous wand, by addressing the abuse of power and teaching a lesson in tolerance, "Motherless Brooklyn" exports a bit of what the world needs now.
"Motherless Brooklyn," rated R, is a Warner Bros. release directed by Edward Norton and stars Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Alec Baldwin. Running time: 144 minutes
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