Motherless Brooklyn is the type of film that evokes a general sense of post-viewing contentment, and a lingering feeling that it could have been more. Perhaps with a bit more drama, or a bit more emotional pull, it could have escaped the somewhat bland “yeah, it was good” category, i.e. perfectly fine for streaming or watching on an airplane or killing time if Terminator films are not your speed. Motherless Brooklyn operates at a slow, stylized pace. The story is interesting and relevant. The actors are all very good, and the noir production design and cinematography casually and convincingly immerses the viewer in 1950s New York. Motherless Brooklyn is a crime drama with a gumshoe aesthetic and a unique twist. The main character Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton, Birdman) is a private investigator with Tourette’s Syndrome, a disorder involving the nervous system that causes involuntary tics, sounds and movements. His condition results in some awkward situations as Lionel attempts to solve the murder of his boss, mentor and only friend Frank Minna (Bruce Willis).
Motherless Brooklyn was a labor of love for its star Edward Norton who also wrote the screenplay and directed the film, loosely based on a 1999 award-winning novel by Jonathan Lethem. I haven’t read the book so I don’t know the extent to which the story is altered, but I do know that Norton shifted the timeline from the 1990s to the 1950s to give it more of a throwback gumshoe vibe. I also suspect that the book fleshes out some of its supporting characters with greater depth and detail. The impressive ensemble gathered for Motherless Brooklyn – including Willis, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Willem Dafoe, Bobby Cannavale, Leslie Mann, Fisher Stevens, and Cherry Jones – is almost too much for the film to properly absorb, along with its sub-plots involving political corruption, scandal, urban housing issues, family dynamics, murder, intrigue and yes, even some romance.
The film (rated what I would consider a very soft ‘R’) does a great job promoting understanding and empathy for anyone with Tourette’s. You can’t help but root for Lionel as the story unfolds. He’s a smart and sensitive guy pining for – and pursuing – justice and acceptance.
Motherless Brooklyn is sluggish at nearly two-and-a-half hours’ long, but not so slow as to call it boring.
It’s just lacking spark.