In New York City during the 1950s, change is happening. The divides between races among the populace is causing protest and violence to spiral out of control. The rich are looking to the future, while the poor are just trying to make it to the next day. Both sides are at each others’ throats in the name of progress, and neither is willing to back down. This leads us into a twisted mystery, helmed by one man.
Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) has struggled with Tourette syndrome for most of his life, finding ways to keep his uncontrollable tics and shouts suppressed from a world that sees him as a freak. However, he does have one friend in private investigator Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who has helped Lionel learn how to control his outbursts and use his incredible memory to his advantage.
But things are about to change for Lionel. Frank is killed during an operation, leaving behind a cryptic message. Having been the only person to ever look out for him, Lionel is determined to find out who killed him and what he was investigating. The more he looks, the more he becomes entangled in a conspiracy involving construction tycoon Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) and an idealistic African American woman named Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) that puts the future of the city at risk.
An apparent passion project of Norton’s since the book’s release in 1999, you can tell that he truly cared about not only making the film, but adhering to the period he set it in. Because of this, Motherless Brooklyn is a delightfully old-fashioned noir mystery that harkens back to a long forgotten genre of film. It’s great to see someone work with the bones of an old formula in an age when people are so interested in burying it.
Much of this is largely due to Norton’s lead performance. He has always been a great actor, and this one ranks among his best. His portrayal of the lead character is done with so much emotion that you truly believe he has become the character of Lionel Essrog. He also does an amazing job portraying a man with Tourette syndrome. He really looks like he’s suffering from the condition, not just imitating it. Kudos to him for pulling that off.
Norton also makes the film work with his writing and directing. He hasn’t directed a film since 2000, the comedy film Keeping the Faith. He has spent the better part of the last 19 years trying to get this movie made, and now that he’s made it, you can see how much he wanted to. His assured direction and accurate portrayal of the time period perfectly shows his love for the source material and this type of film in general. It’s really Norton that makes the whole film work.
However, every movie has its missteps. This movie, unfortunately, suffers from an overly long runtime. Its central mystery is gripping and engaging, but its big twists and conclusions reveal themselves a little too slowly. Despite taking obvious inspiration from such classics as The Maltese Falcon, the film can’t help but pale in comparison to such classics. The effort is admirable, but this is the one thing that really hampers the end result.
There’s no denying that Motherless Brooklyn is the result of a filmmaker and actor who is extremely passionate about the story. It’s held together by a gripping lead performance, great direction, and a loving embrace of a bygone genre. Even if it can’t reach the heights of the cinematic classics that inspired it, Norton deserves praise for putting something like this together, something that most studios today would never even consider trying to make.