According to actor/writer/director Edward Norton, his relationship with Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn began before the book hit shelves. As he explains in the featurette “Making-Of: Edward Norton’s Methodical Process,” he was tipped off by a friend about the story. Its lead, Lionel Essrog, a man with both Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Tourettic impulses, caught Norton’s attention and held it so tightly that Norton and his production team have been working to bring Lethem’s book to the big screen since 2001. After a long journey of development and production, the film hit theaters in November of 2019, earning 12 nominations from a variety of organizations and two wins from the Satellite Awards: Best Art Direction & Production Design for Beth Mickle and Michael Ahern and the Auteur Award for Norton himself. While audiences can’t bring the accolades home with them, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment is releasing Motherless Brooklyn for home consumption early on digital January 14th and on Blu-ray and DVD January 28th.
Lionel Essrog (Norton) is not the first type of person you’d think of as a detective. Though smart, adaptable, and incredibly capable, his Tourettic impulses make it difficult for him to hide in a crowd. Despite his personal set-backs, his boss, lead private investigator Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), loves having him around, mentoring and looking after Lionel like he’s one of Frank’s unit in World War II. This bond becomes Lionel’s motivation when tragedy befalls Frank while working a job, leaving thousands of unanswered questions and a business in turmoil. But as Lionel follows lead after lead, he unintentionally stumbles into a silent war for control of New York. A war that will change the course of the city forever.
For our spoiler-free thoughts on the theatrical release of Motherless Brooklyn, head over here. Otherwise, there may be spoilers.
Whether you’re a fan of the film or missed seeing it in theaters, you should know going in that the special features are unexpectedly light for a passion project like this one. I wouldn’t stoop to conjecture as to way, but it is certainly startling that a project, which took Norton nearly 20 years to move from concept to release, would only result in five minutes of deleted scenes and nearly 10 minutes of behind the scenes coverage via a single featurette. The only other things included are trailers for other Warner Bros. home releases and commentary from Norton himself to accompany the feature. For the most part, the deleted scenes are small sequences which one can assume were removed for time, while another slightly longer piece is an interesting discussion between Lionel and Cherry Jones’s Gabby Horowitz, a character with great significance to the more personal stakes of the story. As presented in the completed film, Gabby is more leader of a movement and a co-worker to Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Laura Rose, but this cut sequence provides a glimpse into the fact that the larger mystery of Frank’s case is less of a secret than otherwise implied. That kind of knowledge about other characters makes their interactions and decisions far more interesting. Adding to the depth of the film is the previously mentioned “Making-Of” featurette. Here, the audience hears from principle cast and crew members about the process leading up to production, what it’s like to work with Norton in front of and behind the camera, some of the reasons for moving the time period of the story, as well as some really interesting pieces about the music.
Two aspects worth digging into from “Making-Of” are the brief discussions about working with Norton and the music. Recognizing that he’d need actors who were comfortable jumping from working with a scene partner to talking to a director, Norton specifically sought out actors with stage experience over just theatrical. His thinking was that he needed actors capable of being in the moment, able to adjust on the fly, and, in essence, let the process flow like jazz. Actor Bobby Cannavale tells a particularly amusing story about his experience shifting between scene work with his friend and getting instructions from his director. In regard to the music, as mentioned in the theatrical review, the score from Daniel Pemberton is undeniably beautiful with its haunting melodies and crooning horn. In the featurette, Pemberton reveals how the jazz compositions are designed to convey not just the period, but the Lionel’s internal journey. For example, toward the beginning of the film, the sound of discordant drums play within the score: this is the chaos within Lionel’s head manifested in a way the audience can feel without the need of dialogue. Joker composer Hildur Guðnadóttir does a similar thing with her score, utilizing a continually rising 90-piece orchestra to signal the lead’s increasing mental dysfunction. The big difference between Guðnadóttir’s approach and Pemberton’s is his utilization of a simpler set-up: trumpet, saxophone, double bass, piano, and drums, the very things that Lionel sees in the film when his character begins to explore Laura Rose’s world. Additionally, the discord in the music isn’t to signal some kind of mental break akin to Arthur Fleck, but to demonstrate the cognitive struggle Lionel faces daily.
In terms of the technical specs, there’s nothing particularly out of the ordinary for a home release. It’s worth noting that there’s no Blu-ray Combo Pack, only separate Blu-ray and DVD releases, but each do come with a digital code. Though some digital releases do include exclusive content, that doesn’t seem to be the case with Motherless Brooklyn. As for audio, the Blu-ray is encoded with DTA HD-MA, while the DVD has Dolby/Surround and Dolby/Digital. There are also the usual closed captioning and foreign language options. In terms of the look, the theatrical experience didn’t particularly blow this reviewer away, despite some great work by cinematographer Dick Pope and costume designer Amy Roth in capturing the period. That said, the home video release does maintain the theatrical look so home viewers with a reasonable set-up won’t experience much visual loss from the theatrical.
Whatever your feelings on Motherless Brooklyn, there’s no denying the timeliness of Norton’s adaptation of Lethem’s novel. The story follows Lionel’s search for the truth of his friend’s murder, as well as trying to finish the job his friend began. There’s an honorable quest at the heart of the tale. Surrounding it, however, is an exploration of the self-entitled strong and their view of those they consider weak, how self-proclaimed purpose can blind a person to thinking their decisions are ordained and infallible despite the enormous pain and suffering they cause, and that somehow helping the many justifies or forgives hurting the few.
Available on digital beginning January 14th, 2020.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD January 28th, 2020.
Motherless Brooklyn Special Features
Blu-ray Special Features
- Making-Of: Edward Norton’s Methodical Process (9:39)
- Commentary with Director Edward Norton (2:24:21)
- Deleted Scenes (5:20)
DVD Special Features
- Making-Of: Edward Norton’s Methodical Process