Review of 'Motherless Brooklyn'

Go Down Moses

Review of 'Motherless Brooklyn'

The wife and I just saw Motherless Brooklyn on HBO. It's billed as an Edward Norton movie -- he also starred in it -- based on the Jonathan Lethem novel. I didn't read the novel (I was busy writing the sequel to The Silk Code when Lethem's novel was first published in 1999). But it's just as well. As readers of my reviews in Vocal may know, I like reviewing movies and TV series on their own terms, not on how they compare with the novels or short stories on which they may have been based. I will say that my wife mentioned that she saw that the Norton movie departed from the Lethem novel in many major ways.

The story in the movie is about Robert Moses, the controversial, legendary builder, responsible for any number of highways in and around New York City (including the Long Island Expressway), bridges, and even Jones Beach. Moses was controversial because it was claimed he ran roughshod over and failed to provide for the poor communities near or over which he erected his great structures. This accords with the focus and expansion of Black Lives Matter now, at long last happening, though Lethem's novel and even Norton's movie were created long before this happened.

In the movie, Robert Moses is renamed Moses Randolph, and unsurprisingly very well played by Alec Baldwin. His antagonist is Lionel (nicknamed Brooklyn and long without a mother, hence the title). Lionel is a detective whose boss is killed, likely because he crossed Randolph in some big way. Also, Lionel has Tourettes, which makes for an especially memorable character, and gives Norton the opportunity to deliver an Oscar-worthy performance, which he does. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Laura Rose, a pivotal character to Lionel and the movie, and she puts in a winning performance, too.

I also liked the less leading characters. My favorite was The Wire's Michael Kenneth Williams, who plays a Mile Davis-type character (identified only as "The Trumpet Man") who uses his trumpet in more ways than one. Also, The Trumpet Man and Brooklyn have a conversation about the shared basis of extreme musical talent and Tourettes that is itself worth price of admission.

I should mention that The Wire is in my view sometimes the best series ever on television, and always in contention for that position, and one of the reasons is that its cast was so stellar. But back to Motherless Brooklyn, it's a satisfying and altogether excellent movie, and I highly recommend it.

movie review
Paul Levinson
Paul Levinson
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Paul Levinson

Paul Levinson's novels include The Silk Code & The Plot To Save Socrates; his LPs Twice Upon A Rhyme & Welcome Up; his nonfiction including Fake News in Real Context, The Soft Edge & Digital McLuhan have been translated into 15 languages.

See all posts by Paul Levinson