There aren’t a lot of films like Motherless Brooklyn anymore, but there really should be.
Motherless Brooklyn tells the story of Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton), a private eye with Tourette’s syndrome, whose life is turned upside down when his boss and father figure, Frank Menna (Bruce Willis) is murdered after a seemingly standard business deal. When Lionel begins to dig into reasons as to why Frank was killed, he discovers a conspiracy that stretches from the jazz clubs of Harlem to the swanky government offices of New York’s business district.
Norton, who stars in and directs this noir throwback, clearly put a lot of passion into this project. The 1950’s New York setting absolutely radiates reverence and nostalgia for a bygone era, as does the jazz music that accompanies many scenes. That passion and commitment to the setting go a long way in ensuring this film’s success.
One of the things many people (myself included) were most apprehensive about in this film was Norton’s portrayal of Tourette’s, which looked like it would be downright uncomfortable in the trailers. While it does take awhile to get used to, I found that by the time the film’s second act began I had accepted it as normal. More importantly, the condition isn’t used for comedy (except for a scene or two where Lionel himself makes a joke). Norton clearly wanted to be respectful of those with this condition, and I felt he succeeded.
Norton’s portrayal of Essrog is deeper than his condition, however. This is a gumshoe with soul, snooping around New York City in hopes of doing right by his father figure. Norton gives him plenty of heart, while also giving him just enough edge that you believe his ability to maneuver the city like he does. It’s a very fun performance from one of our often overlooked great performers.
Elsewhere in the film, Alec Baldwin chews the scenery as a shady city official, Willem Dafoe plays a quirky civil engineer, and Bobby Cannavale portrays another one of Frank Menna’s private eyes. Everyone puts in good work as they flow in and out of the story, and in true noir fashion, not everyone is as they seem. Also featured in the film is Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the daughter of a Harlem jazz club owner and a person of interest to Lionel as he pursues Frank’s killers. She gives a strong performance here as a woman who is seemingly constantly caught between two worlds.
The film doesn’t offer much in the way of shocking reveals or jaw-dropping twists, but it doesn’t really have to. Norton, who wrote the film as well as directing it, serves up an incredibly enjoyable and engaging piece of cinematic comfort food. It’s not going to reinvent or revitalize the noir genre, but it’s a welcome throwback and loving ode to a type of film that doesn’t really get made anymore.
With Motherless Brooklyn, Edward Norton has created a retro mystery, filled with music and laughter, banter and bullets. Noir films might not be popular anymore, but this film serves as a reminder of why they remain such a beloved genre in the film community. Though its script might not always follow through on ideas or subplots, Motherless Brooklyn still presents us with a glimpse into the past, populated with great characters and sweet music. It’s a trail worth following.
Directed by: Edward Norton
Written by: Edward Norton
Cast: Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Dallas Roberts, Willem Dafoe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw