Updated: Feb 9, 2020
Motherless Brooklyn is so many things, some of them really good, some of them uncomfortably bumping into each other, that it is difficult to succinctly describe it. It is a mystery. It is a throwback to 50s detective movies. It is a look at government corruption. It is a look at how the poor are abused while the rich profit. It is a character study about a man struggling with Tourette’s (this takes place in the 1950s, so no one knows what he has; just that he is different). It stars and was directed, produced and written by Edward Norton (adapted from the 1999 novel by Jonathan Lethem) and comes off like a true passion project. There are clearly a ton of things he wanted to do with it. He tries to do all of them and the result is overwhelming at times. His ambition is certainly admirable. The stuff that is successful (the detective material and the main character) is intriguing. The stuff that ultimately is not (the social commentary feels incomplete) is still interesting due to its anger. This is a very flawed movie, overlong (138 minutes, without the end credits) and overstuffed, but never boring or safe.
Lionel Essrog is a detective working for his friend Frank. When Frank is murdered, Lionel decides to investigate what his boss was caught up in, to discover who did it and why. That gets him entangled in corruption and conspiracy in the city’s government. He does this as he manages the Tourette’s that causes his coworkers to call him “freak show.”
Norton’s performance, while far from perfect, is the centerpiece of Motherless Brooklyn and the reason it works as well as it does. He could have played Lionel as a goofy collection of tics, yet he does not. He does not make fun of him either. There are laughs here, though not at his expense. Using narration expected from the genre, Lionel explains his condition in detail. After that, he is just Lionel. It is as much a part of him as his intelligence and loyalty. Norton plays him as someone constantly battling for control with his own body. He is not overly showy and, with the exception of a couple awkward moments, it is not used as a gimmick. People generally accept him as is. When the movie focuses on Lionel and his investigation, it is at its best.
The other material is much more uneven. The case takes Lionel to the most powerful men in the city who are attempting to remake it as they see fit, an activist group protesting their actions and a jazz club. Motherless Brooklyn uses this to explore discrimination against the poor, the majority of whom happen to be black. There is a lot to unpack there and Lionel’s conversations with one of the activist leaders are very interesting. Unfortunately, his villain, a rich, self-centered businessman, lacks the complexity of the rest of the movie. That leaves the heroes with little to play off of. However, Norton is obviously passionate about these issues and gives them room to breathe. They are not just window dressing for a mystery plot.
Another thing Norton did right was loading up on talented actors for his large ensemble. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the activist he finds himself drawn to, Alec Baldwin is the power-hungry businessman, Willem Dafoe is a mystery man with a vendetta, Michael Kenneth Williams is a jazz musician, Bobby Cannavale, Ethan Suplee and Dallas Roberts are Lionel’s co-detectives and Bruce Willis is the ill-fated Frank. These are actors who can do a lot with one line of dialogue. They all seem to understand the type of story they are in, adding much needed atmosphere to the proceedings. Mbatha-Raw fares the best, somehow creating a fully formed woman out of what could have been a cliché role.
Motherless Brooklyn is three movies for the price of one: (1) an homage to classic detective stories (especially Chinatown; its influence is all over this), (2) with a plot that allows it to dive into political commentary, as it (3) examines a man coping with an intrusive disorder. Norton assembled his elements carefully, but they do not always click together. What he has constructed is unique and entertaining, even if he steps on his own toes by trying to do everything at once. This is neither a classic nor a disaster. It is a fascinating swing at something great that comes close enough to make it worth seeing.
3½ out of 5
Edward Norton as Lionel Essrog
Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Laura Rose
Alec Baldwin as Moses Randolph
Willem Dafoe as Paul
Bobby Cannavale as Tony Vermonte
Ethan Suplee as Gilbert Coney
Dallas Roberts as Danny Fantl
Bruce Willis as Frank Minna
Josh Pais as William Lieberman
Robert Ray Wisdom as Billy Rose
Michael Kenneth Williams as Trumpet man
Screenplay and Directed by Edward Norton