Blu-ray Review: Motherless Brooklyn

STUDIO: Warner | DIRECTOR: Edward Norton | CAST: Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones, Alex Baldwin, Bruce Willis
RELEASE DATE: Jan. 28, 2020 | PRICE: DVD $17.96, Blu-ray $19.96
BONUSES: commentary, featurette, deleted scenes
SPECS: R | 144 min. | Crime drama mystery | 1.85:1 widescreen | DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 | French, Portuguese and Spanish subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): 
Movie  1/2 | Audio  | Video  | Overall  1/2

For seeing through the arduous task of finally making his dream project, Motherless Brooklyn, Edward Norton (Birdman) deserves lots of credit for his years-in-the-works adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s acclaimed 1999 novel.

There have been major changes from its source material, beginning with shifting the year the story is set from 1999 to 1957. Additionally, the adaptation adds a jazz-based score and subplot and brings hints of Chinatown and other film noirs and contemporary politics into the mix.

With so much going on, however, it’s no surprise that Motherless Brooklyn struggles with lots of balls to balance, and it occasionally drops a few of them.

Clocking in at an overlong 144 minutes, the film is a handsome period piece in which writer-director-producer Norton also stars, playing a detective named Lionel Essrog, who has Tourette’s Syndrome. He works for Frank Minna (Bruce Willis, 10 Minutes Gone), who assigns Lionel and his partner to keep track of a business deal that eventually leads them to unscrupulous Robert Moses-like city commissioner Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin, Still Alice). Lionel eventually winds up in Harlem where, posing as a reporter, he discovers how far Randolph’s power and corruption reach.

The film swerves all over the place, leaving the central storyline several times to take side trips to the smoky jazz clubs of Harlem, where a community activist (Gugu Mabatha-Raw, Fast Color) gets into trouble with her political actions while Lionel becomes attracted to her.

Motherless Brooklyn has a lot going for it, including a top-notch cast that also includes Willem Dafoe (The Lighthouse), Ethan Suplee (Deepwater Horizon), Bobby Cannavale (The Irishman) and Cherry Jones (Mother and Child); fine period details; and a solid jazz-fueled score. But a lot of it is undone by serious focus issues and passages that simply drag.

Motherless Brooklyn flatlined at the box office when it was released this past November, ringing up a total of $10 million following mixed reviews. There was lots of footage left on the cutting room floor (some deleted scenes are included in its digital incarnation), so this is one project that actually may have been find a more welcoming home in a streaming format.

In other words, “Forget it, Ed. It’s Brooklyn.”

Buy or Rent Motherless Brooklyn

About Irv

Irv Slifkin has been reviewing movies since before he got kicked off of his high school radio station for panning The Towering Inferno in 1974. He has written the books VideoHound’s Groovy Movies: Far-Out Films of the Psychedelic Era and Filmadelphia: A Celebration of a City’s Movies, and has contributed film reportage and reviews to such outlets as Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, Video Business magazine and National Public Radio.