Warner Bros Pictures
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Edward Norton
Screenwriter: Edward Norton, based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem
Cast: Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis, Cherry Jones, Bobby Canavale, Dallas Roberts
Screened at: Warner, NYC, 10/12/19
Opens: November 1, 2019

I’ve lived in Brooklyn all my life, the only living fellow my age who has loved the borough enough never to move. During the 1950s when I came of age and didn’t particularly follow politics as I do now when it’s as entertaining as any Broadway tragedy, I had the name Robert Moses imbedded in my memory. All I heard was that he did this and he did that; that he headed a dozen government bureaus and, while never elected, had more power than even the New York mayor or governor. He was honored to have bridges and parks named after him not only in Gotham but throughout New York State. His is a major role in “Motherless Brooklyn,” considered by Warner Bros to be a contender for end-year awards. Thinly disguised as the character Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), he would probably be considered by the movie’s audience a stand-in for today’s Trump, although Robert Moses died in 1981. And you can consider the parallel that Moses Randolph is played by Baldwin, one of the most popular guests on Saturday Night Live given his caricatures of our president. But I never knew that his character was a racist and an elitist who did not care for minorities or for poor people, that he contributed his talent to keep African-Americans out of New York by building overpasses that were a foot too short for buses. In fact he considered cars to be a pleasure vehicle for the elite and did not care that they are used today for business.

In any case, his role stands out in a picture by Edward Norton in which the celebrated actor serves not only as a thesp but as the film’s writer and director. Too bad, though, that this overlong picture (close to two and one-half hours and easily edited down had Norton wished) is convoluted, and requiring at least an extra viewing for understanding, which makes it a good choice for the DVD or the streaming services when they inevitably come out.

Using Jonathan Lathem’s novel, which won the National Book Critics Circle Awards and is available at Amazon for under a sawbuck, Norton changed the 1990 setting to 1957, in a Brooklyn whose cars could make you think that you’re in Cuba. Norton stars as a gumshoe, a private eye, who could never have been assigned to the police force because he had Tourette’s Syndrome, which afflicts him with uncontrollable tics both bodily and through speech. He would make odd noises, and only occasionally a taboo word like “tits” escapes from his mouth. His name is Lionel Essrog but as an orphan in his outer borough he acquired the nickname Brooklyn. At one point he is ejected from a Harlem jazz club. The rest of the time he gets slammed around a lot, so you’d think he’s on to something big. And he is.

Working in a shabby office with Tony Vermonte (Bobby Cannavale), Gil (Ethan Suplee), Danny (Dallas Roberts) and Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) he is upset when Frank, his best friend, is shot by a group of goons. This becomes the first plot point that’s difficult to figure out. So Motherless is determined to get to the bottom of things, discovering that African-Americans are highly critical of Moses Randolph’s plan to eject them from their homes in order to build highways—which Randolph pretties up by calling them slum clearance. Befriending Laura Rose (Gugu Mabatha-Raw), he finds that she is a lawyer concerned with the fate of her community. She clues Lionel in to the Moses Randolph plans and takes him to a Harlem jazz club where he enjoys the sounds from the trumpet of Wynton Marsalis (Michael Kenneth Williams), dubbing in the actual music of Marsalis. And he gets slammed around.

Expect to get tired of the tics. You’ll think, OK, Lionel, you made your point so you don’t have to let us keep seeing how the outside world thinks that you’re either amusing or nuts. More important you may wind up unclear about why Lionel’s idol, Frank Minna, is shot by people with whom he is negotiating. Further you watch the theme of brotherly hate as Paul Randolph (Willem Dafoe), the builder’s brother who has with him more than simply sibling rivalry, but his passion is over the top. Cherry Jones turns in a brief look at Gabby Horowitz, a community leader opposing Moses Randolph and perhaps a stand-in for Bella Abzug. And the entire design including a look at a huge Penn Station set up as it looked in the fifties is grand. If this film does not try your patience, you’re the type of person whose hunger is for watching “Chinatown” again and again.

144 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – D
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – C+