Even before its opening frame, Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn will likely fill many in the audience with apprehension. The idea of Norton, an able-bodied actor, casting himself to play a detective with Tourette syndrome seems like a receipt for disaster. Frankly it sounds like something one would expect to see in a 90’s Farrelly brothers comedy.
Thankfully, in adapting Jonathan Lethem’s novel, Norton takes great care to ensure that his protagonist, Lionel Essrog, is not defined by his disability. He avoids the stereotypical cinematic tropes of using Essrog’s diagnosis as a vessel for offensive jokes, or making the character appear freakish. In one scene the film uses jazz music to offer a relatable and nuanced look at the condition. Essrog’s disorder is simply a part of him, a facet of his life that does not take away from his abilities as a sleuth.
When we first meet Essrog (Notron), he is working with his mentor Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) on a case so secretive that even he is left in the dark. Taking Essrog and three other troubled boys under his wing at an early age, Minna shaped them into the Minna Men, a detective agency and limo service. Minna was especially fond of Essrog and his incredible gift for memory.
For this assignment, Essrog’s role is to covertly listen in on Minna’s conversation with mysterious individuals. It is clearly a plan they have executed many times before; however, things quickly go south and Minna is killed.
As the agency scrambles to stay afloat after the devastating loss, Essrog decides to conduct his own investigation into what Minna was working on. Slowly finding himself tangled in a web of deceit that has ties to a powerful developer turned politician (Alec Baldwin), activists (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a disgraced architect (Willem Dafoe), and violent men intent on ensuring Minna’s secret remains buried with his corpse.
Taking viewers back to the 1950s, from contentious town hall meetings to Harlem jazz clubs, Motherless Brooklyn captures the aesthetics of the era in rich detail. While the film’s sprawling narrative never reaches the heights of Chinatown, there are plenty of interesting components, take its timely commentary on gentrification for example, to sinks one’s teeth into.
While Norton’s slick noir crackles with intrigue it also feels unnecessarily bloated. Although the director takes his time to build up Essrog as a worthy successor to Minna’s throne, and develop the romantic beats, it inadvertently disrupts the pacing of the central mystery. There are several clues that audiences will pick up on immediately, however, the film takes the long road to reaching these same conclusions. The overall length also distracts from Norton’s performance a smidge as one begins to time when Essrog’s next uncontrollable verbal outburst will occur.
Despite feeling overly long, Motherless Brooklyn constructs a satisfying and layered mystery. Norton creates a gumshoe who, much like the jazz music that flows throughout the film, confidently moves to his own unique beat.