The first thought that crossed my mind after the credits rolled on Motherless Brooklyn was that it was clearly a passion project. Written and directed by Edward Norton, the film, loosely based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem, is ambitious. A neo-noir set in 1950s Brooklyn develops a life of its own and every detail is meticulous and yet, what it needed was more of the perspectives of the underrepresented communities at the heart of Motherless Brooklyn.
The film opens with private investigators Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) and his colleague Gilbert (Ethan Suplee) as they await instructions from their boss Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). The story makes use of the scene to introduce Lionel’s Tourette’s Syndrome and Norton’s voice-over works to offer more insight. Long story short, Frank’s meeting quickly goes sideways and the rest of the film is spent with Lionel attempting to uncover exactly what got his friend killed, and it heavily involves city planner Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), Paul (Willem Dafoe) and the mysterious Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). That is to say that everything Lionel uncovers is vastly more intricate and filled with corruption than he’d imagined.
Motherless Brooklyn is a neo-noir with a message that reverberates across time and is as relevant today as it was back then. At the center is a mystery where every scene includes a detail waiting to be pored over and fitted into a larger puzzle. 1950s Brooklyn is the hiding place of the contemptuous plans working to gentrify the city, erasing the lower income folks — the majority of whom come from underrepresented groups — as if flicking a crumb from your shirt, never to be seen again. It’s a crime drama with a lot to offer, even when it misses some of the cues needing further exploration. Still, Edward Norton’s efforts are resplendent and there’s a lot to appreciate about the film, especially in the way it tackles its themes.
What works best for the film are the quiet moments between characters. The soft, intimate, one-on-one conversations that are truthful in the most straightforward of ways. The self-awareness in these scenes exude honesty, though the truth often hides, bubbling beneath the surface, wanting (and sometimes needing) to remain unseen. The mystery unravels at its own, often too slow, pace. Still, one can appreciate and respect the way Norton takes his time getting there, ensuring the pieces are in place without rushing. Motherless Brooklyn is a slow burn, thoroughly leaning into its crevices, smoothing out its creases, and working to ensure that a point is made without hitting you over the head with it.
However, there are moments in the film that are strangely played for laughs, or were at least unintentionally funny. Even the audience laughs during moments where it is uncomfortable to do so and its strange given that nothing in these instances meant it to be funny. If nothing else, Motherless Brooklyn is so focused on the details that it meanders for too long before getting going. An example is how long it takes for the storyline to introduce Laura; waiting an hour into the film before she shows up in a two-hour movie is far too long.
In the film’s greatest strength also lies its greatest weakness. On the journey to its point, it overlooks the community at the heart of Moses Randolph’s greed. Lionel is at the center of it all, but the film may have had more of an impact if it had explored the affected Brooklyn residents more than it did. Thankfully, however, Norton’s character never becomes the white savior trope. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is always excellent, of course, playing Laura with determination and intelligence. Even while her role is important, though, Laura gets overlooked in the hopes that you won’t linger too long on her and she ultimately gets lost within the folds of the plot. The remainder of the supporting cast is fantastic, too, though Alec Baldwin’s final scene truly takes the cake.
All that said, Motherless Brooklyn is indeed Edward Norton’s showcase. Whether it’s behind the scenes or in front of the camera, this is Norton’s movie through and through. It’s more inspired by Jonathan Lethem’s novel than sticking to it religiously, which is good because that’s what makes Motherless Brooklyn its own. Norton offers crisp, rustic cinematography, overlaying the brightness of the city with metallic colors that threaten to drown it out. Norton allows the scenes to linger, prolonging the moments without cutting away abruptly.
Onscreen, it would have been easy to overact, though Norton never does, exhibiting an unrestrained energy, tempered only by the controlled habits he’s formed. With an overall ambitious vision and a storyline that echoes across the decades, Edward Norton puts his all into Motherless Brooklyn and it shows even when it falters.