“Motherless Brooklyn” has so much going for it with an engaging old-fashioned story of mystery and intrigue in gritty film noir style. Based on the novel of the same name by Jonathan Lethem, Edward Norton is the writer, director and lead in this thriller. Unfortunately, there is one misstep from my point of view. He used the disorder of Tourette’s Syndrome as his comedic trope, accentuating the most severe and unlikely symptoms and associated behaviors and disorders. The film would have benefitted had he found a different way to make us chuckle.
We are introduced to Lionel and his buddies as a possible shake down is about to occur. We also find out more about Lionel as the story is narrated by and seen through his eyes. Gilbert (Ethan Suplee) and Lionel sit in the car awaiting further instructions. Are they both buffoons or is there more than meets the eye as Lionel perseverates on a loose thread in the cuff of his sweater. Danny (Dallas Roberts) helps him out, with a few reprimands, as Lionel utters a few repetitive words and rhymes. It is at this point that Lionel, through voiceover, explains to the audience what if feels like to have this “problem” which is severe Tourette’s Syndrome. Given the era this film takes place, the syndrome was not widely diagnosed, but the film does elude to some pretty awful therapies executed by the nuns where he and Frank were raised.
A murder occurs and Frank Minna’s (Bruce Willis) crack detective team, Danny, Lionel, Tony (Bobby Cannavale) and Gilbert, must put the pieces of the puzzle together to solve not only who the murderer is, but more importantly, the why of it all. With a sprinkle of a love story, a bit of humor although it is at the expense of a man suffering from Tourette’s, and a tight script not to mention the gorgeous jazz music at the foundation and sometimes as the focal point, it’s a story that keeps you guessing. Norton doesn’t give too much away too soon, teasing you to try to figure it out before his character does.
These characters, the costuming, and situations are all over-the-top, just as you would expect from this genre of film. And these are the elements you also love in this style of film. Alec Baldwin plays the heavy with dialogue you can’t help but imagine his muse is Donald Trump. Leslie Mann has fun with her role as the widow who surprisingly isn’t too sad about losing her hubby, and Bruce Willis brings a mellow, easy tone as leader of the pack. Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s power of presence fills the screen and inexplicably forbids you to look away. Her character of Laura is the love interest or perhaps femme fatale as she fights to equalize social and racial injustices. The entire cast including Willem Defoe, Fisher Stevens, Cannavale, Michael Kenneth Williams as the engaging and talented trumpet player, and Josh Pais elevate the story to its finest level.
Norton’s direction called for multiple closeups, pushing the viewer to crawl into the mind of the subject at hand. It’s a tactic that works as you never have a moment to have your thoughts wander, but unfortunately, there was a projection issue during my screening which became distracting as portions of the screen were omitted. The chase and fight scenes, however, were tightly filmed with tension at the forefront giving the film the element of intensity at just the right moments.
While the running time is close to 2 ½ hours, there’s not a dull moment. Overall, it’s a complicated story that unfolds beautifully, but it’s too bad that this very smart story had to mock an actual disorder to try to make us laugh.