Set against the backdrop of 1950s New York, Motherless Brooklyn follows Lionel Essrog, a lonely private detective afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome, as he ventures to solve the murder of his mentor and only friend, Frank Minna.
“Motherless Brooklyn” has so much going for it with an engaging old-fashioned story of mystery and intrigue in gritty film noir style. Based on the novel of the same name by Jonathan Lethem, Edward Norton is the writer, director and lead in this thriller. Unfortunately, there is one misstep from my point of view. He uses the disorder of Tourette’s Syndrome as his comedic trope, accentuating the most severe and unlikely symptoms and associated behaviors and disorders. The film would have benefited had he found a different way to make us chuckle.
A murder occurs and Frank Minna’s (Bruce Willis) crack detective team must put the pieces of the puzzle together to solve not only who the murderer is, but more importantly, the why of it all. With a sprinkle of a love story, a bit of humor although it is at the expense of a man suffering from Tourette’s, and a tight script not to mention the gorgeous jazz music at the foundation and sometimes as the focal point, it’s a story that keeps you guessing. Norton doesn’t give too much away too soon, teasing you to try to figure it out before his character does. While the running time is close to 2 ½ hours, there’s not a dull moment. Overall, it’s a complicated story that unfolds beautifully, but it’s too bad that this very smart story had to mock an actual disorder to try to make us laugh.
Edward Norton has nothing but good intentions regarding his long-gestating adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel. In taking on the roles of screenwriter, director and lead actor, he’s intent on, for good or ill, delivering his vision to the big screen. To be sure, his reproduction of 1950’s New York City is a well-worn and has a live-in feel to it, while his performance is very good.
However, he’s far too in love with the material, as the film is overlong and would have benefited from a pair of outside, subjective eyes for suggestions of where to cut and tighten the narrative. Also off base is the use of Norton’s character Essrog, who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome, a condition that his used for narrative expediency and cheap laughs. It’s a disingenuous approach that nearly undercuts the entire movie. Solid support from Bruce Willis, Bobby Cannavale, Willem Defoe and Alec Baldwin ensure this isn’t a complete wash.