5/10 Motherless Brooklyn feels less like a movie and more like Edward Norton and his pals playing dress-up, and that’s not the worst concept for a movie I’ve ever heard of.
New York City, 1957- Lionel Essrog (Norton, who also writes, directs and produces), Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) and the rest of Minna’s firm grew up together at the local Catholic orphanage during the Great Depression, served together in World War II and now all work together at Minna’s private detective agency/car rental service. Minna is seen as a mentor and quasi-savior by all of them, and Essrog, who sees himself as otherwise unemployable due to his debilitating case of Tourette Syndrome but is used extensively by Minna for his incredible photographic memory, particularly reveres him.
That’s why Essrog is particularly devastated when Minna, who is notoriously tight-lipped about his cases even with employees, is murdered by a client early in the film, shot in the back with his own weapon. Essrog, with no help from his co-workers and now forced to do the front-facing work he’d been kept clear of for years, resolves to figure out who killed Minna, a quest that uncovers extensive corruption in the city’s development organizations lead by Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), an thinly veiled caricature of New York City’s real-life master planner Robert Moses.
Motherless Brooklyn isn’t Norton’s first time in the director’s chair, but it’s been almost 20 years – which is how long he’s held the rights to the book the movie is based on, first acquiring them in October 1999. It seems that he simply took his time with the project – he didn’t finish the script until 2012, didn’t decide to direct personally until 2014 and didn’t get production started until 2018.
So it makes a lot of sense that the finished film feels like a bunch of movies smashed into one, like someone who doesn’t get to call the shots very often tried to make every project he’d want to make in a perfect world at the same time. Motherless Brooklyn shifts from a gritty detective story to a gritty newspaper story to a slow romantic drama and back, all with goofy Tourette’s moments thoroughly mixed in – and Norton goes whole hog on all of it, especially the Tourette’s.
The whole movie is essentially a feature-length schoolday with that one kid who tried to convince everyone he had the syndrome because he thinks it’s funny. It doesn’t even come up in the plot. Essog apologizes for his outbursts to most every character he meets, and no one minds. Norton’s essentially rewritten the entire story – the movie is based on a 1999 novel that’s set in 1999 and about Japanese massage parlors, or whatever. Even if it weren’t clear just by looking at the movie, it’s obvious the only thing Norton cared about was playing around with Tourette Syndrome because, after 20 years of holding the rights to this story, that’s basically the only plot element that remains in place.
Even with a full movie of Essog’s tics, the most gratuitous wink is when he makes Willem Dafoe describe New York citizens as “calm as Hindu cows,” a line lifted from Norton’s iconic movie Fight Club 20 years ago.
Norton really needed to pick a lane with this. Motherless Brooklyn’s various elements aren’t integrated at all, to the point that you can frequently feel one flavor of the story stopping so that another can start. At 144 minutes, it’s about an hour longer than any one of the movies it’s trying to be deserves.
Norton also goes whole hog on the noir late-‘50s New York City, which I always love, but he doesn’t really hit the mark here. The real problem is visuals – there are some decent shots, but the color grading isn’t nearly where it needs to be. Cotton candy blue has absolutely no place in a neo noir!
Despite mostly taking place during bright, sunny days, Motherless Brooklyn does manage to capture the feel of a neo-noir and how a movie like this should feel decades after it’s set. The city, even as the version of it we know today is currently under construction in the film, feels lived in. Essog refers to “the crash” and “the war” as recent, communal experiences, impressing what it must have felt like to live through events that are written about as if they will never happen again. All in their 40s at least, the old characters’ fears and world views are clearly shaped by the time and place they exist in. Sounds of the city are inserted to illustrate Essog’s state of mind in given moments, such as with sirens passing by outside when he’s alarmed.
Toward the end, it coalesces into a real period piece, and particularly a movie about the period in which this type of film was popular. The main conflict is over who will get to shape the future of New York, and who will get zoned out in the process, but much about it is focused on what it feels like to live in this time and place, particularly its musings on the nature of heroism as it relates to grimy gumshoe work and Essog’s overarching isolation even in America’s most crowded city.
Motherless Brooklyn started its life as an excuse for Norton to do silly Tourette’s tics, but over 20 years it morphed into an evocative portrait of post-war New York, just after the city as we know it was planned but before it was built, before the depression of the ‘70s and the excesses of the past 40 years. Its crass origins and generally disorganized story stick out like its lead character’s compulsive speech patterns, but it’s still a rewarding film if you can sit through it.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.