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Motherless Brooklyn (2019) - Movie Review

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Motherless Brooklyn (2019)



It was a dark and stormy night. Flickering frames of light pierced the smoky darkness, casting shadows on the tattered silver screen. The projector’s jittery rays revealed the forlorn faces of a checked-out audience while the stormy night’s deafening thunder claps did nothing to mask the incessant drone of snores and heavy breathing. The film is Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn. It is 144 minutes long. We were only 90 minutes in, and I was there… dun, dun, dun, dunnnnn.

"It rolls out more like an unintelligible southern drawl than it does a thrilling New York City cab ride"

Edward Norton goes behind the camera for only the second time (Keeping the Faith, 2000) with his meticulously crafted private eye mystery, Motherless Brooklyn. He also wrote the script and stars in the film set in 1950’s Brooklyn about greed, power and dispossession. And though he gets most things right with regards to the proper look and feel of a period detective noir, it is the inability to reel in his indulgences that gets him – and the film – in trouble. As a result, Motherless Brooklyn is one of the most beautiful slogfests you’ll ever sleep though.

Norton is Lionel Essrog, an estranged private eye living with Tourette’s Syndrome who sets out to solve the murder of mentor and fellow gumshoe Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Because of his nervous twitches and sudden head jerks, Lionel is considered an unemployable “freak” to most. But to Frank, Lionel’s photographic memory and meticulous attention to detail were invaluable.

Lionel’s murder investigation takes him from the jazz clubs of Harlem to the slums of Brooklyn, where he eventually discovers that his friend was on the trail of a major corruption case involving Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), the most dangerous man in New York City. But as he continues to unravel the mystery, Lionel also learns that he may be endangering the welfare of friend and activist Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the very woman who just might be his own salvation.

Stylish, beautifully shot, and well acted, the film was passed on by most major studios before Norton’s own Class 5 Films and MWM Studios finally brought the film to theaters some 20 years after Norton began kicking around the idea he got from Jonathan Lethum’s novel of the same name. Though he takes some liberties with the adaptation – changed the 1990s setting to 1957, he fails to address how the book’s complexity and difficulty might translate to a movie. With its twisting labyrinth of shady characters and intertwined plot points, the film definitely needed a more tidy script and would have benefitted from more concise storytelling. And I won't even get into all the things wrong with how a character with Tourette's syndrome was handled. Let's just say that's where the film's ONLY humor comes from.

We don’t get enough noir thrillers in Hollywood these days. And though this one is a densely plotted thriller that presents complex characters and intriguing danger around every corner, the story simply isn’t interesting enough to build a film around. And no, the obscure references and similarities to what is currently going on in the White House don’t make it any more relevent or enjoyable. The plot is simply too complex and convoluted to engage an audience for any amount of time, much less for two and a-half hours. And consider yourself warned: get plenty of sleep beforehand and don't step out for popcorn once the film starts. It is that tedious.Motherless Brooklyn (2019)

It’s not too difficult to see what Norton was trying to do here. After all, it is a stylish homage to the noir genre as well as a soul-searching love letter to a New York that no longer exists. We need more of those. In addition, the film has a lot of great individual moments and it is refreshing to see the cast, which includes Bobby Cannavale (Vinyl), Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project), and Ethan Suplee (Remember the Titans) turning in great performances on such a meaningful project. But Lordy, that meticulous pacing! It rolls out more like an unintelligible southern drawl than it does a thrilling New York City cab ride.

You need to see Motherless Brooklyn if for no other reason than to marvel at Michael Ahern's gorgeous photography and the beautiful sets designed by Kara Zeigon. But do yourself a favor and wait until it comes out on home video. That way, you can rewind and pick back up where you fell asleep.

2/5 beers

Motherless Brooklyn (2019)


Blu-ray Details:

Home Video Distributor:
Available on Blu-ray

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Motherless Brooklyn (2019)

MPAA Rating: R.
83 mins
: Edward Norton
Edward Norton
Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin
: Drama

Memorable Movie Quote: "There's something going down, and it's big, and they were not happy about what he found."
Theatrical Distributor:
Warner Bros.
Official Site:
Release Date:
November 1, 2019
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date:

Synopsis: Set against the backdrop of 1950s New York, "Motherless Brooklyn" follows Lionel Essrog (Norton), a lonely private detective afflicted with Tourette's Syndrome, as he ventures to solve his friend's murder. Armed only with a few clues and the powerful engine of his obsessive mind, Lionel unravels closely-guarded secrets that hold the fate of the whole city in the balance.

Motherless Brooklyn (2019)

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