“Motherless Brooklyn” Is A Meandering Misfire From Edward Norton


There’s an admirable quality to the earnestness with which Edward Norton has tackled this adaptation of Motherless Brooklyn. A supposedly unfilmable novel, Norton has opted to make it his sophomore directorial outing. Bold move. Unfortunately, also a bit of folly on his part. For numerous reasons, this is a big time misfire, without too many redeeming qualities. It looks good, at least, but too much of what’s happening is of little interest. What could have been an epic noir instead is a tremendous letdown. Opening this week, it’s far from an Academy Award contender and likely will disappoint most who seek it out.

The movie is, as mentioned above, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Jonathan Lethem. Set in 1950s New York City, we follow private detective Lionel Essrog (Norton), a lonely man struggling with Tourette’s Syndrome. Most see him as a freak, but his friend and mentor Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) sees the value in how Lionel’s mind works. Then, Frank is murdered under mysterious circumstances, setting him off down an obsessive path to find out what happened. As he ventures throughout the city, a conspiracy slowly begins to reveal itself. What started with only a clue or two and his obsessive mind, Lionel begins upsetting the apple cart, bringing out forces that don’t want their secrets to come to light. In the balance? Nothing less than the whole city, to one degree or another. The more he finds and the deeper he gets, the more dangerous things become Norton writes and directs, in addition to starring, with cinematography from Dick Pope, along with Daniel Pemberton composing the score. Filling out the cast, besides Norton and Willis, are Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Willem Dafoe, Cherry Jones, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Leslie Mann, Josh Pais, Dallas Roberts, Fisher Stevens, Ethan Suplee, Michael Kenneth Williams, and more.

Despite being a clear passion project on the part of Edward Norton, none of his enthusiasm makes it to the screen. This is an absolute slog to get through, ponderously slow and ultimately lacking in much of a point. Even Norton’s committed lead performance is tough to get through, as some compelling acting is mixed with some overtly off-putting tics. Yes, that’s the character, but he never finds a way to make it palatable to sit through for nearly two and a half hours. Instead of drawing you in closer to the character and his labyrinthian story, the choices push you away, creating even more distance between the audience and Norton’s Lionel Essrog, which is a crippling blow to the flick.

Motherless Brooklyn was transformed into a period piece by Norton, and that was another mistake. Instead of the 1990s, this is instead a meandering 1950s set tale. Oddly, it only leads to a stuffier feeling, holding you even more at arm’s length. Throw in how some of the cast members don’t really fit the setting, and it just feels like the whole production is a ruse, like a game of dress up, as opposed to a window back to another era. Norton has points to make about how the city came to be, a la Robert Moses, as well as thinly veiled shots at Donald Trump, but they rarely land with any gusto.

This weekend, anyone who has been following the slow march of Motherless Brooklyn to the big screen can finally give it a look, as it’s opening up nationwide. Alas, the final product ends up as one big shrug of the shoulders. Norton has better in him, and we deserved better. Put any thoughts of Oscar out of your mind and just consider it a period piece with an interesting backstory. Anything else will lead to massive disappointment.


Motherless Brooklyn hits theaters on Friday.

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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