Reel Shorts | Motherless Brooklyn

by Charles Kirkland Jr.

Edward Norton writes and directs a stylish, neo-noir crime tale with Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Bruce Willis called Motherless Brooklyn.

Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton), is a junior private detective afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome. He works for Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) who trusts Essrog implicitly because just as the Tourette’s causes Lionel to tick, grunt and prattle uncontrollably, it also allows his to focus and remember details like a savant.  While working a job, Lionel witnesses the shooting of his boss.  On the way to the hospital, Minna entrusts Lionel with cryptic messages designed to help him to discover the gunmen and uncover the truths that led to his murder.  Armed only with those few clues, Lionel must avenge his boss, confront the villains and save the girl while everyone around him doubts his abilities.

Edward Norton has fought for years to bring this movie to fruition.  He both writes and directs this work and stars in it alongside Mbatha-Raw, Willis, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Willem Dafoe, Cherry Jones, and Michael Kenneth Williams.  Set in 1950s New York, Norton effectively captures the look and feel of a noir movie the like of The Maltese Falcon or even Bulldog Drummond

The saving grace for the movie is that most of the principal actors submit very good performances.  Gugu Mbatha-Raw is enchanting as the damsel in distress.  Alec Baldwin impresses as the industrial man behind it all.  Norton himself is impressive as a combination of Rain Man and Primal Fear.  Michael Kenneth Williams is a little disappointing and distracting with his fake trumpet playing though.

The plotline of Brooklyn is sufficiently convoluted with a couple of classic red herrings that threaten to lead the hero astray but the real problem of the movie lies within its composition.  A usual noir movie moves at a pace that is much faster than this.  Norton seems to want to make an epic out of a movie that should be much simpler.  In any noir, the private detective fights for simplicity and solution.  Lionel Essrog just meanders through the film trying to get the whole picture.  Motherless Brooklyn is far too drawn out to hold attention for almost two and a half hours.  Any movie that takes this long to develop should be building to a conclusion and while the ending is good, it is an underwhelming payoff.

Rated R for language throughout including some sexual references, brief drug use, and violence, Motherless Brooklyn is a decently executed crime drama that has roots in old Hollywood cinema and captures political and racial tensions of a pre-civil rights New York.  Unfortunately, it suffers a little from being a little too wordy and poorly paced.  It is a work of Norton’s passion yet somehow it is stripped of its own.

Grade:  C-