Motherless Brooklyn Review: Norton Can't Quite Crack This Case

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn

A moody and well-acted noir drama, Motherless Brooklyn is held back by its jumbled storytelling and somewhat unrefined filmmaking approach.

Like an incomplete puzzle (the kind that would infuriate its protagonist, Lionel Essrog), the film version of Motherless Brooklyn is missing something. An adaptation of the 1999 novel by Jonathan Lethem, the noir detective movie is a passion project for its writer, director, and star Edward Norton, who's been trying to get it made for the last two decades. But where its source material was a modern day-set (for its time) and deeply psychological yarn, Norton's interpretation takes place in the 1950s and explores political corruption and unchecked power in the tradition of Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. This may explain why the film's disparate pieces never quite click into place. A moody and well-acted noir drama, Motherless Brooklyn is held back by its jumbled storytelling and somewhat unrefined filmmaking approach.

Picking up in New York City in 1957, Motherless Brooklyn stars Norton as Lionel, a private investigator whose struggles with Tourette Syndrome make him a social outcast, but who learned to use his photographic memory to his advantage under the guidance of his mentor and boss, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). So, when Frank is shot and killed during a mysterious meeting gone wrong, Lionel becomes obsessed with uncovering the truth about the men Frank was involved with and what really happened. However, in doing so, he stumbles upon a much bigger conspiracy involving a social activist (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a troubled civil engineer (Willem Dafoe), and Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), the powerful NYC city planner who seems to tie it all together.

Edward Norton and Willem Dafoe in Motherless Brooklyn
Edward Norton and Willem Dafoe in Motherless Brooklyn

Clocking in at nearly two and a half hours, Motherless Brooklyn is in no rush to solve its central mystery and unfolds like a crooning jazz melody, taking in the sights and sounds of its late autumnal historical setting. Cinematographer Dick Pope (whose credits include The Illusionist, which Norton starred in only) and production designer Beth Mickle (The Deuce) do a nice job bringing '50s NYC to life, painting its neon-lit nightclubs and deteriorating neighborhoods in cold shades of blue and grey. Music plays an equally important role in establishing the film's sentimental, yet melancholic atmosphere, with Daniel Pemberton's somber score complimented by Thom Yorke and Wynton Marsalis' wistful tune "Daily Battles" (which acts as a theme song for Lionel). You might not want to live there, but Motherless Brooklyn's vision of the past is certainly worth a visit.

On his end, though, Norton has trouble behind the camera. He's only directed one other project in his long career (2000's Keeping the Faith) and it shows in Motherless Brooklyn, which is hamstrung by its uneven pacing (scenes tend to be either too long or abrupt) and Norton's habit of focusing his camera more on actors delivering long-winded monologues than finding ways to express the same information visually. The film's budget was admittedly on the small side for a studio-backed period piece, but Norton nevertheless falters at making the most of the resources he did have, and it becomes increasingly obvious over time that Motherless Brooklyn is simply recycling the same few sets, over and over. Norton's also said he shifted the story from the '90s to the '50s to prevent its hardboiled dialogue from coming off as ironic, yet mostly just succeeds in making life harder for himself. This further leads to an incongruity between the movie's period backdrop and the social issues it deals with (gentrification, city planning), many of which would've made more sense within the context of its source material's '90s setting.

Alec Baldwin in Motherless Brooklyn
Alec Baldwin in Motherless Brooklyn

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Norton the actor fares better than the writer-director. His performance as Lionel could've easily veered off into Rain Main territory, but Norton forgoes the theatricality and plays him as a real person, crafting a compassionate and sympathetic portrait of a sleuth with "glass in their brain", as Lionel puts it (and if audiences laugh at him, that's more of a reflection on them than him). And to his credit as director, Norton also brings out passionate performances in the A-grade cast he's assembled around him, with standouts including Mbatha-Raw as the intelligent and spirited Laura, and Dafoe as the tormented Paul. Baldwin's Moses Randolph wasn't a character in the original novel (and was inspired by the infamous NYC city planner Robert Moses), yet the entitled and arrogant antagonist makes for a natural addition to Motherless Brooklyn - though he too feels more like a villain for the '90s, not the '50s.

Motherless Brooklyn is already lagging behind this year's other would-be awards contenders following its run on the festival circuit, but it very much has its merits. With additional development, the story's move from the '90s to the '50s might've panned out, and it still partly works as a mood piece in spite of the disjointed storytelling and muddled social commentary. And if it falls short in its aspirations of becoming the next Chinatown, then Norton deserves credit for aiming high all the same. Though the pieces don't all come together in the end, it's an interesting puzzle in its own way.


Motherless Brooklyn is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 144 minutes long and is rated R for language throughout including some sexual references, brief drug use, and violence.

Our Rating:

2.5 out of 5 (Fairly Good)
Key Release Dates
  • Motherless Brooklyn (2019) release date: Nov 01, 2019
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