Motherless Brooklyn

Lionel aka Brooklyn in a stakeout

Motherless Brooklyn is the first film Ed Norton has directed since 2000’s Keeping the Faith. Oddly, considering Norton is a child of Episcopalians, that also had a connection to Catholicism – a rabbi and a priest fall for the same woman, boom boom. Here the link is the Catholic orphanage where Norton’s Lionel Essrog and his buds grew up, before being rescued by a kindly benefactor (Bruce Willis), who put them all to work in his detective agency.

“Brooklyn” is what Frank (Willis) calls the motherless Lionel but let’s not worry too much about Frank since he dies in the first few minutes, providing the kicking-off point for a whodunit set on mean streets, where guys in hats call each other “mook” and big old Plymouths belly around New York city corners.

Frank is a homage to Bogie and all those guys with their coat collars turned up. And so, it turns out, is Brooklyn, once he gets into the private-eye groove, though a Tourette’s tic marks him out as an unlikely kind of hard-boiled detective. His fellow orphans, now co-workers, are played by Bobby Cannavale, Dallas Roberts and Ethan Suplee and, like Willis, don’t impinge on the plot and action in any real way.

The plot is familiar too. Chinatown, basically, but instead of a to-do about water provision for Los Angeles, the corruption focuses on the redevelopment of New York, where extensive graft and kickbacks oil the wheels of progress epitomised by the figure of city planner Moses Randoph (Alec Baldwin), a character clearly modelled on legendary city planner Robert Moses.

Jonathan Lethem’s original book was published in 1999 and Norton bought the rights back then too. His adaptation (he not only directed and stars but also did the screenplay and is a producer) shunts the action back four decades to the 1950s, allowing him go the full noir – wiseguy voiceover, a Miles Davis-y soundtrack, Raymond Chandler-esque plot diversions, lush cinematography (by Dick Pope) and a femme fatale in the shape of Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

If it’s all a bit “ish”, “esque” and “in the style of”, and there’s a lot of entertainment to be had from genre tick-boxing. The bridges teem with traffic, the streets are full of brownstones decades away from gentrification and Pennsylvania Station turns up at one point as a location because that’s what happens in movies like this.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw with Ed Norton
Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Ed Norton

The Moses Randolph character gets his own subplot – there’s even Cherry Jones playing an anti-Randolph campaigner, an avatar for urban activist Jane Jacobs – but Norton struggles to integrate him with the rest of the film, one grandstanding “so I ripped down a few neighbourhoods but that’s progress” speech notwithstanding.

Robert Moses is so big a figure historically – New York’s bridges and parks are his legacy, he palled about with Donald Trump’s dad, was accused of confusing “slum clearance” with “negro clearance”, as someone in hte film says about Moses Randolph – that he’s an awkward fit in a film that would actually be fine without him. He’s also a more complicated character than there is really time to develop, and Alec Baldwin is caught on the horns of a dilemma about whether to go for caricature or nuance.

Willem Dafoe turns up too, as a kind of urban soothsayer, and is as brilliant as you like in the sort of ranting, intense role that might have been written with a “can we get Willem Dafoe in to do this?” scribbled in the margin. Norton also gets a moment, in scenes with Dafoe, to remind us of those years when he was talked about in terms of being the latest in the Marlon Brando-Robert De Niro-Sean Penn line, though what with all the Tourette’s tics (done brilliantly) he’s closer to Dustin Hoffman.

A bit more poetry in the camera and a ruthless removal of 15 minutes of material by going through every scene and trimming the fat would do this film a world of good. Let’s face it, you need to be at fighting weight to go head to head with the likes of Chinatown or The Big Sleep.

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Still Alice

Kristen Stewart and Julianne Moore in Still Alice



A super confident woman, top of her game, a linguistics professor, one day discovers herself grasping for a word while she’s giving a lecture. This being the movies, where a cough in one scene leads to coughing up blood in the next, we automatically suspect she’s got Alzheimer’s. The title providing another nudge (why Still?). And so it turns out, in a movie that seems determined to put a polish on the disease of the week movie, and largely succeeds.


Polish number one is that it’s not just any old Alzheimer’s but familial Alzheimer’s, in which the gene – should you have been unlucky enough to have inherited it from an affected parent – means you have 100 per cent chance of getting Alzheimer’s yourself.


But really the claims for genre transcendence are made by the quality of cast that writers/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have attracted to the project. Julianne Moore plays the unlucky Dr Alice Howland and in the scenes set in the doctor’s consulting room, where the camera rests entirely on her face as she told one awful truth after another, the wisdom of that casting decision becomes obvious. Matching her in strength and subtlety is Alec Baldwin as her uxorious but never sappy husband, Kate Bosworth as her prickly daughter, Hunter Parrish as the largely superfluous son and Kristen Stewart, clearly making a decision to step back from the spotlight, as the youngest daughter, who finds herself promoted to more of a caring role as the rest of the family quietly shuffle backwards.


It’s also an unusually nuanced film, and gives its victim far more agency than we’re used to in this sort of thing. So, alongside gruesome scenes like the one in which Alice pisses her light grey joggers – not a good look – and fails to recognise her daughter, there are others where she clearly uses her advancing condition to her advantage, ducking out of a dreary dinner party, or reading her youngest daughter’s diary and putting it down to “my illness”.


They’re an unusual duo, Glatzer and Westmoreland, who you might remember as the names behind 2001’s The Fluffer, a well acted, quirky gay rom-com. And might not remember as the names behind 2013’s The Last of Robin Hood, which cast an excellent Kevin Kline as Errol Flynn in his final skiddy years (and, incidentally, gave a small role to Errol’s grandson, Sean). That’s when they’re not working as producer/consultants on America’s Next Top Model.


That TV background will count against them in some quarters, where this film will be pegged as a disease of the weeker not worthy of even a first look. It’s irrefutable: that is exactly what it is, and the plaintive piano and string quartet soundtrack isn’t trying to deny it either. But no matter how mangey and emotionally manipulative, every dog has its day. And this, ladies and gents, is that canine.




© Steve Morrissey 2014