Film Review – Motherless Brooklyn (2019)

Title – Motherless Brooklyn (2019)

Director – Edward Norton (Keeping the Faith)

Cast – Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Willem Dafoe, Bobby Cannavale, Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis, Leslie Mann, Michael Kenneth Williams, Ethan Suplee

Plot – Tourette’s Syndrome suffering and social outcast private eye Lionel Essrog (Norton) sets himself a task of solving the mysterious murder of his friend and mentor Frank Minna (Willis) in the mean streets of New York in the 1950’s.  

“There’s no upside in lyin’ to a woman who’s smarter than you, so, I told her the truth”

Review by Eddie on 02/03/2020

A passion project for its writer, director, star and producer Edward Norton, Motherless Brooklyn is no doubt a piece made with great heart (its main cast all supposedly appeared here free of charge as a favour to Norton) but unfortunately for this crime noir, most of Norton’s feature is more of a chore to sit through than an enjoyment as we follow his Tourette’s Syndrome suffering Lionel Essrog across his investigation into his mentors murder in New York in the 50’s.

It was a big move for Norton to transport Jonathan Lethem’s well-regarded novel of the same name from a 90’s setting to a 50’s setting (his second ever venture behind camera after 2000’s Keeping the Faith), a decision that came about when Norton felt as though the narrative would suit that era better, and judging from the final product it was a wise move for the film, as its setting is a highlight of the film with Daniel Pemberton’s jazzy score and the smoke filled streets of NYC feeling alive and full of mystery here but it’s not enough to mask the struggles Norton has making his adaptation come to life.

Firstly, it’s hard to overly enjoy our two and a half hours with Essrog, a character and a role that seems on paper and delivery to be designed solely for the purpose of Norton scoring awards recognition, as Essrog is a rather non-charismatic oddity that is prone to random outbursts, rhymes and threats but a person we never really come too warm to as he digs deeper and deeper into the nefarious murder of his friend Frank Minna, played by a cameoing Bruce Willis.

The other glaring facet of disappointment around Essrog is that his medical condition really doesn’t add much to this story at all.

Removing his ailment would’ve taken nothing away from his investigation that includes seedy politicians, building wars and minority groups, while having Norton constantly remind us all that Essrog has Tourette’s doesn’t make us any more interested in the rather boring pathway he heads down.

The best Noirs and those that can be seen even as guilty pleasures always include memorable twists and turns, unforeseen double crosses and colourful side characters that make the plot pop but not even the likes of Bobby Cannavale, Willem Dafoe or Alex Baldwin can make Brooklyn shine with underwritten roles and poorly crafted dialogue, a lowlight of which includes a seriously miscast Leslie Mann as Minna’s newly-minted widow.

Watching Brooklyn leaves you in a constant state of waiting for things to really take off, waiting for that story development to get things moving into another gear but those moments never come as we are left with uninteresting love interests, far too long in the tooth Jazz Club stop-overs and a convoluted plotline that thinks too highly of itself as it instead flounders about on a long road to nowhere in particular.

Final Say –

Working with a low-budget and with nothing but passion (and perhaps a little desire for silverware), Motherless Brooklyn is a sometimes valiant attempt by Norton to bring to life a seemingly un-filmable novel but for most of its excessive run-time, this noir is tame and boring more often than not.

2 pot plants out of 5

4 responses to “Film Review – Motherless Brooklyn (2019)

  1. Great review! I always root for Edward Norton to succeed. I really like his work and what he does, and wanted Motherless Brooklyn to be at least a good film. Pity, it really isn’t. I still want to read the novel, though.

    • I have a feeling the book would be a lot more palpable in a sense of how it deals with the lead characters medical condition. I just felt this was a really lifeless film, not a lot of heart in it.

  2. I really liked this book, and Lethem is one of my favorite writers. (I secretly want to make a movie of ‘As she climbed across the table’… in another life.) I had no idea it’s been made into a movie. Too bad it’s no good. I also like Norton a lot. Maybe I will still see it with super low expectations..

    • It’s interesting that Norton changed the timeframe so drastically here, be keen to hear what you thought about the change when you catch the film.

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