Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) is an assistant private investigator working under a man named Frank (Bruce Willis). Frank is his mentor, his father figure. Lionel was an orphan when he was taken under Frank’s wing. When Frank is murdered, it is only natural that Lionel will do whatever is necessary to uncover the reason behind his death. What he does not expect, though, is how entrenched this mystery is within a conspiracy of political power.
Lionel suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome. He is also OCD and can remember every word a person says. In terms of characterization, it is kind of a hat on a hat. And it would be easy to say Norton chose this role for himself in order to reap the awards benefit from taking on the “challenge.” It certainly reads somewhat narcissistic to write, direct, and star in the role. While Norton’s script is not the most cohesive piece and his direction may be just up to par, he does put everything into this performance. Perhaps too much.
The pacing of Motherless Brooklyn is flabby, the unchecked pen of Norton allowing scenes to go on beyond what is necessary, beyond what is effective. There is something in this unruly and tedious narrative, some nugget of intrigue lost in Norton’s desire to make his character the most sympathetic man on the planet. Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Laura Rose, who begins the film as a figure of intrigue and ends it a soulful love interest, is immediately in awe of Lionel’s worldliness and delighted by his disorder.
Lionel is canny—we see all of this canniness play out in scene after scene of investigation—but he is less interesting than Norton assumes he is. He is an agglomeration of literal ticks, and while this is an odd choice on its face it is also not one Norton wants to commit to. Lionel is both a smooth operator and a person crippled by the self-conscious he has over his disorder. He is a character made up of traits meant to make us root for and sympathize with him, but he is not made up of all that much substance.
Despite a star-studded cast, Motherless Brooklyn never gets off the ground. It just circles the drain of the detective fiction tradition. Norton shows an aspiration to hearken back to classic gumshoe narratives, and one can’t fault him for that. But the script is over-burdened by extraneous plotting. Norton’s direction doubles down on the over-long tedium, allowing scenes to play on through small talk, into relevant plot information, and then back to small talk. His performance, too, is ultimately not much more than an exercise in exaggeration.
The film handcuffs itself to these burdensome choices and drops into the Hudson, where it is swallowed up by the 1950s New York City milieu and the dated P.I. patois it so desperately clings to for life. It may not be the worst attempt at a heavily-plotted investigative drama—the actual investigation plot is compelling, it just isn’t focused. But Motherless Brooklyn is too many minutes for too little substance, and it seems to be more geared towards showcasing Norton’s performance than it is telling the aforementioned compelling narrative.
Motherless Brooklyn: C
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)