“Motherless Brooklyn” is a decent detective story revolving around Edward Norton’s Tourette’s- afflicted private eye, Lionel Essrog, as he investigates New York City corruption and his partner’s killer. However, many flaws make “Motherless Brooklyn” a less-than-quality film.
Set in the 1950s, the film is shot in the same style as the famous noir films of the period and is filled with private eyes, narrative twists, jazz clubs and mysterious murders. But while the movie has all the hallmarks of a traditional film noir, it lacks devotion to this style and fails to deliver the feel of a classic private detective story throughout its runtime. Despite the vintage cars that line the streets and trench coats and fedoras the characters wear, “Motherless Brooklyn” is made with all the crisp color and language of any modern film. It’s as if director Edward Norton occasionally forgot he was trying to make a noir-style film. The atmosphere of the film misses the mark by so much that at times the film feels as though it takes place in modern New York.
The film is a passion project for Norton, who wrote the screenplay, directed and starred in the film. It’s obvious that he directed himself, and that’s not a good thing. Edard Norton is an incredible actor, but no one should ever play the lead of their own film. Norton’s performance isn’t bad per se, just distracted. His character’s Tourette’s feels at times like a gimmick and a plot device, and it never quite seems fully integrated into the character. Norton does manage to stand up next to the likes of Bruce Willis’ private detective, Alec Baldwin’s power-hungry city official and Willem Dafoe’s mysterious informant, but only barely. Norton would have been so much better had someone else directed the film.
Aside from Norton’s distracted performance, the acting is incredible. The cast includes a long list of big names, but Dafoe, Baldwin and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays a political activist and love-interest, stand above. Each of these characters inject life into an otherwise mediocre film, and it quickly becomes their stories that draw audience interest. Baldwin manifests into an imposing and sinister character, and Dafoe plays cowardly-but-concerned very well as an informant who has all the answers but won’t take action directly for fear of retribution. However, it is Mbatha-Raw who delivers the most human performance out of all of them as a naïve, idealistic activist caught smack in the middle of the action.
Overall, “Motherless Brooklyn” has a great concept and story, but it falls a little short on the execution. Norton tries admirably to pull all the pieces of this complicated two-hour, 24-minute story together. But he fails at creating a consistent or cohesive film and can’t deliver a completely compelling performance as the film’s lead. The film is average; not bad, but not good either.