Motherless Brooklyn is unfortunately another miss for Edward Norton as a director. The acclaimed character actor adapts Jonathan Lethem’s period crime novel for the big screen. The film is well-acted, but an absolute chore to sit through. Motherless Brooklyn is painfully slow and boring. The long deliberated mystery becomes quite obvious halfway through the two hour and twenty-four minute runtime. Norton is overly enamored with his characters. He loses focus on pacing and structure. The result is a talented ensemble slogging away to tedium.
Motherless Brooklyn takes place in 1957 New York City. Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) is a detective with Tourette syndrome. His best friend and mentor is the hard-nosed gumshoe, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Lionel is considered a “freakshow” by others. His involuntary tics and outbursts has him relegated to back up duties. But Lionel’s “broken brain” does have its advantages. He has a photographic memory and keen ability to line up details.
Frank asks Lionel to secretly monitor a tense meeting. A car chase ensues and Frank is shot trying to escape. He whispers scant clues to Lionel before his death. As the agency reels from the loss of their leader, Lionel tries to uncover what Frank had gotten himself into. His search leads to a “colored girl” (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an angry engineer (Willem Dafoe), and most ominously, Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), the powerful city building commissioner. Lionel knocks over a hornets nest of corruption. At the root of it all, a secret worth killing for.
Motherless Brooklyn is seen entirely from Lionel’s point of view. We labor along as he struggles to deal with people and overcome his disability. Edward Norton is fantastic as usual. There isn’t a second where you don’t believe he has Tourette’s. The best parts of the film are his average interactions. A memorable scene has Lionel trying to light a showgirl’s cigarette. His failure to do so is humorous and heartbreaking. Norton establishes Lionel solidly, but spends too much time with unnecessary details. Thirty minutes of Lionel bumbling around could have easily been cut with no detriment to the character’s exposition.
Motherless Brooklyn fails as a detective story. Several key clues are presented in the first act. One of them is so apparent, it sticks out like a nail through the entire film. Lionel, who’s supposed to be a stickler for the details, somehow doesn’t figure this out until the climax. It’s unbelievable and makes the rest of the story contrived. The so-called mystery would have been solved in twenty minutes. Lionel is an intelligent protagonist. He should have easily discovered something right in front of him. Norton’s script needed to rework this critical plot point.
Motherless Brooklyn has themes of racial subjugation and oppression. I found the handling of both to be clunky and heavy-handed. Characters have long monologues that explain their intent to the audience. Scene after scene hammers in their racially motivated actions. Norton needed more subtlety for this delivery. Again, there’s really no mystery to the antagonists’ intentions. Their goals are evident from the beginning. The ending lacks punch because the reveals have been defanged.
Edward Norton’s skill as an actor is unquestionable. He hasn’t reached that level of success as a writer or director. Nineteen years after his middling feature debut, Keeping the Faith; Motherless Brooklyn is an exercise in overkill. It has too many flaws in spite of his lead performance. Motherless Brooklyn is a production of Class 5 Films and MWM Studios with distribution from Warner Bros.
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