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‘Motherless Brooklyn’ Film Review: Edward Norton’s Gorgeous Noir Exceeds His Grasp

Exquisite ’50s period detail and relevant Big Apple politics aside, this saga sprawls beyond what the actor-writer-director can handle

Just when you think writer-director Edward Norton has already given you a whole lot to chew on in his neo-noir “Motherless Brooklyn,” he adds more things. And not all of them are satisfying.

To be fair, “Motherless Brooklyn” would be really great as an episodic TV series. Or perhaps if it was divided by chapter titles to punctuate the packed plot. But Norton tries, and about 50% succeeds, to adapt Jonathan Lethem’s sprawling novel of the same name into an intriguing masterwork.

It at least begins as many great noirs do — with a mysterious murder. New York City private detective Lionel Essrog (Norton) is on watch duty in a car as his superior and mentor Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) takes the lead on a sketchy new case. All of a sudden, Frank is shuffled out of view and killed. A grief-stricken Lionel makes it his mission to find out who killed his friend, eventually finding himself at the center of an increasingly winding mystery involving shady politicians, gentrification and a Harlem jazz joint.

Oh, and Lionel suffers from Tourette syndrome, a gratuitous character feature that seems, at least in the film, only to serve the purpose of trying to make him a more sympathetic protagonist.

But buried amid the straggling narratives in “Motherless Brooklyn,” you’ll find a marginally interesting story about Norton’s character, an orphan somewhat alienated in the New York City borough where he later found himself under Frank’s wing. Though the story of a lonely, hapless man flailing after the loss of his one and only friend gives the film as much heart as it does urgency, Norton fails to spend much time helping the audience stay as invested in Lionel’s commitment to Frank. It drives Lionel to go above and beyond to solve his murder, but a flashback or two grounding their kinship would have pulled the audience deeper into his journey in a less perfunctory way that does more than catalyze the action.

As Norton tries to make clear from the way “Motherless Brooklyn” begins — with racketeers fatally shooting Frank next to a row of dumpsters — the story may be triggered by grief but it is anything but sentimental, even if its protagonist is. By turning the clock even farther back on Lethem’s 1990s-set story, the filmmaker revisits some of the origins of the Big Apple’s dirty political underbelly through the eyes of an all-too-decent man whose intentions ultimately prove to be naïve.

In doing so, Norton’s film exposes the visual dichotomy of a city that houses both the biggest hearts and the blackest souls as it tells the story of the rise of the haves and the suffocation of the have-nots, a tale still relevant today. Cinematographer Dick Pope (“Mr. Turner”) effectively low-lights every seedy crevice of 1950s New York — whether it be a run-in on a street corner or the mom-and-pop operation Lionel works for or even a government office — while offering a similarly stark overview of the marginalized yet resilient residents that make up the black- and brown-occupied Harlem neighborhood.

Pope coats the former in lots of greys and blues while illuminating the uptown scenes with green and brass hues that complement costume designer Amy Roth’s (“The Looming Tower”) impeccably tailored wool suits and coats worn by many of the characters.

The precise attention given to the style of “Motherless Brooklyn” underscores the plot’s mediocre execution. Moving beyond the crust of Lionel’s objective, Norton struggles to follow Lionel’s clumsy approach to blow the lid off a much larger story that at best highlights his relentless compassion for humanity. After Frank’s death rattles Lionel’s gumshoe agency — comprised of characters played by Bobby Cannavale, Dallas Roberts and Ethan Suplee, who are all otherwise preoccupied with familial and romantic drama — an isolated Lionel sinks himself deeper into the evolving mystery that turns into an inexplicable fascination with the Harlem jazz club, The King Rooster.

There Lionel encounters Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a Harlem-based lawyer quietly working to save the neighborhood from gentrification. Though she proves to be a vigorous voice in the community who can certainly hold her own, she is ultimately reduced to a scared victim who relies on Lionel for emotional support in the wake of a tragic event. It’s a frustrating portrayal that, despite perhaps Norton’s best intentions, further sidelines Laura and consequently compresses Mbatha-Raw’s performance.

Norton also pushes aside the Harlem saga (just when it is starting to get interesting, too) to get to where he clearly wants to take this narrative: the domineering Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin in a role he wears like a glove), a white politician inspired by the real-life Robert Moses. In an exhaustive monologue at the 11th hour of the film, after Lionel doggedly pursues one lead after another, Moses spews contempt toward every non-elitist in the city (read: all the non-white residents), indicting himself on a whole other charge in the process.

It plays like a cathartic moment for Lionel to finally get to the truth after the audience watches him spin his wheels right off the rails throughout the film’s 144-minute running time. But it’s a bleak ending that doesn’t really answer all the questions that sprout up in the narrative. Instead, it offers a justification for the state of those events, which is exasperating. Norton earns praise for taking on the gargantuan task of bringing this story to the screen, and pulling quadruple duty as actor-director-writer-producer, but “Motherless Brooklyn” seems more like a blueprint of a great film that lacks the nuance it needs to be truly impactful.