By Joel Kalkopf
27th January 2020

Trench coats, cigarettes, fire escapes, jazz, shadowy figures - there's no mistaking that 'Motherless Brooklyn' is a good old-fashioned neo-noir. If there is a movie released this decade that uses the word "gumshoe" more regularly, I'll eat my fedora. Set in 1957 New York, Edward Norton's sophomore directorial feature follows Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton, 'Fight Club', 'American History X'), a private detective afflicted with Tourette's and OCD, as he tries to solve the murder of his mentor and friend, Frank (Bruce Willis, 'Die Hard'). As the case begins to unfold before him, Lionel unravels closely-guarded secrets that could not only determine the fate of New York, but maybe even put his own life at risk.

Norton has spoken frequently about how the novel of the same name, released 20 years ago by Jonathan Lethem, instantly captured his attention and how he's been obsessed with getting this to screen ever since. And it's easy to see why he was so drawn to Lionel as a protagonist. He's likeable but he's no great lead detective in the mould of Sam Spade or Sherlock Holmes; rather, he's simply a great asset to the team in the way that he remembers every conversation he's ever had or every setting he's ever been in. It is not that he is successful in his field despite his afflictions, but because of them. And herein lies this film's greatest challenge, and one it fails to overcome.


Many actors have portrayed people with disabilities from all walks of life, and so many of them have won awards for it. Norton is equally as fantastic in this role, but the question has to be asked: what is the purpose? It's labelled as an affliction, nobody understands him because of his problems, but he seemingly gets by just fine, and suffers no real hurdles in the process. The people that he interrogates understand very quickly that he has a problem, and make no further comments. They do not treat him any differently than they would a regular detective, but perhaps even more importantly, it doesn't advance the plot or act as a clever character device - it's just there. That's not to say that he should be treated any differently, but then why create the illusion of an obstruction?

Similarly, it's confusing for an audience to simultaneously be told to laugh at something, and at the same time be told to sympathise with it. Norton tries to bring some comedy and lightheartedness to this otherwise brooding tale, with his manner of turning phrases and spinning people's words often entertaining - but then he also tries to highlight the struggles of his syndrome and the pain it can cause. Can you have your cake and eat it too? It makes the viewer uncomfortable and leaves them not knowing whether to laugh or not.

That being said, there is enough to like about this film. Thom Yorke continues to put his hand up as the go-to musician in the industry, with composer Daniel Pemberton's blues score hitting all the right notes. The aesthetic is everything reminiscent of the classic noir genre, and from the gin-soaked jazz clubs to the slums of Brooklyn, the old cliché that "the city plays as another character" rings true. When it comes to the acting, Norton parades that he barely paid anyone a cent, counting on people doing it for the love of the script - and he is rewarded for casting actors he trusts. Alec Baldwin ('Glengarry Glen Ross') brings the right amount of nuance as the film's antagonist Moses Randolph (loosely based off American tycoon Robert Moses), Willem Dafoe ('The Florida Project') is alluring, Gugu Mbatha-Raw ('Belle') adds much-needed warmth to the setting, and there are equally great cameos from Broadway star Cherry Jones, Leslie Mann ('Knocked Up', 'Blockers'), and Bobby Cannavale ('The Irishman'). The dynamic of the investigation team, once led by Frank (Willis), is great to watch, and in fact, the film could have done with more of it. After a great opening sequence, audiences are introduced the rest of the team, but it's a shame they are not really seen thereafter.

The aesthetic is everything reminiscent of the classic noir genre, and from the gin-soaked jazz clubs to the slums of Brooklyn, the old cliché that "the city plays as another character" rings true.

It's a difficult task to pace a noir for a modern audience, and you can feel the two and a half hour runtime. The story is interesting and the parallels to America in the present day are welcomed, but there isn't enough tonal balance to contrast all the shadowy moodiness. The plot is on the more convoluted side, and you'd imagine that with it being a story about following a trail of clues, 'Motherless Brooklyn' would reward repeat viewings - but I'm not sure I would optionally sit through all of it again. There is nothing inherently wrong with this film, bar some odd edits and framing choices, and Norton tackles the material fairly well, creating a great tribute to the noir era of filmmaking. It sometimes treads the line of parody rather than homage, but for anyone in the mood for crime mystery in the vein of 'Chinatown' or 'L.A. Confidential', this will absolutely hit the spot.

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