Motherless Brooklyn

First rule of detective work - buy a fedora.
6/10 – Despite a top-notch performance from Edward Norton, Motherless Brooklyn is let down by its overly complicated plot.
Release Date: 
Friday, December 6, 2019
Written by: 

Set against a backdrop of 1950s New York, Motherless Brooklyn follows a private detective living with Tourette Syndrome, who is forced to investigate a string of crimes and ends up contending with thugs, corruption, and a ruthless city planner.


When it comes to making movies, it seems Edward Norton isn't in any sort of hurry.

The American History X actor made his directorial debut with comedy-drama Keeping the Faith in 2000, and at around the same time, acquired the rights to adapt Jonathan Lethem's novel Motherless Brooklyn.

And after nearly two decades of development, Norton's take on the story has finally hit the silver screen.

Switching the modern setting of the book for the mid-1950s, the plot of this neo-noir crime film focuses on Lionel Essrog, as played by Norton, a lonely man with Tourette syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Essrog works at a detective agency alongside Gilbert Coney (Ethan Suplee), Danny Fantl (Dallas Roberts), and Tony Vermonte (Bobby Cannavale), with the crew rescued as children from an abusive orphanage, hence the character's nickname of "Motherless Brooklyn".

He isn't exactly conventional in his investigation methods, but his boss Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) regularly taps into his photographic memory, especially when it comes to secret meetings with members of the underworld.

However, while out on a job one day, a series of dramatic events unfold between Minna and some thugs, leaving Essrog to pick up the pieces whilst also trying to best manage his tics.

By examining Minna's seemingly endless trail of clues, the protagonist must decipher exactly how a jazz bar in Harlem as well as four individuals - an African-American woman named Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her employer, Gabby Horwitz (Cherry Jones), a reporter named Paul (Willem Dafoe), and the powerful city planner Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) - are somehow interlinked.


Accordingly, Motherless Brooklyn sticks fairly closely to the tropes and aesthetic of classic film noirs, though Norton does attempt to tackle some current themes, such gentrification, toxic masculinity, and white privilege with his characters, most notably Randolph.

The figure is based on New York City public official Robert Moses, known as the "master builder" of the Big Apple during the mid-20th century, who would become one of the most polarising figures in the history of urban development.

Exchanges between Essrog and Randolph are perhaps the most engaging in the film, with Norton doing an excellent job as the underdog.

The star must have done his research when it comes to Tourette's Syndrome too, as the way he conveys tics is done sensitively, but also really makes for a complex character and helps the audience to understand exactly what people with the condition battle each day.

Elsewhere, Dafoe and Baldwin turn in reliable performances and Mbatha-Raw shines as a smart, determined young woman trapped in a man's world.

In spite of the 144-minute runtime, Cannavale and Jones are a little underused throughout the narrative, though be sure to watch out for a great cameo by Leslie Mann as Frank's wife Julia Minna.

Motherless Brooklyn certainly isn't perfect - the plot becomes rather convoluted in the second act - but it is refreshing to see a detective movie with an excellent score and carefully curated mise-en-scene released amidst today's sea of Hollywood action movies and superhero blockbusters.

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