One might take notice of “Motherless Brooklyn,” Edward Norton’s latest film, and react with disdain to its title.


The title of the film is as subtly complex as the characters who populate this noir, adapted by Norton from Jonathan Lethem’s novel. Norton plays Lionel Essrog, a private detective investigating the murder of his mentor and friend, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) in 1950’s New York City.

Lionel, who assumes Minna’s investigation when he is gunned down, also struggles with Tourette syndrome. Norton does not engender our sympathy or empathy by using Tourette’s as a crutch; rather, he uses it as a unique way to tell the story from Lionel’s point of view.

Lionel, who also has a photographic memory, subtly begins to pick up Minna’s trail with the help of Danny Fantl (Dallas Roberts). Their efforts lead Lionel down two paths: the first is that of Moses Randolph. Randolph, played to the nines by Alec Baldwin, is the head of the Borough Authority, seeking to usurp power for himself through a gentrified Brooklyn and won’t stop until he gets what he wants.

The second trail leads Lionel to the grassroots efforts to stop Randolph’s progress. At the heart of that effort is the gorgeous Laura Rose, deftly played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. The story makes no bones about the subtle romance that brews between Lionel and Laura; it celebrates the relationship with a slow dance to a jazz tune. The chemistry between the two actors sizzles through the screen as the Harlem club that Laura’s father, Billy (Robert Wisdom) owns becomes a central figure in the story.

A jazzy rhythm to Lionel, courtesy of Daniel Pemberton’s soulful score, drives his investigation forward. No one asks him to carry on the investigation, assuming that he is incapable of doing so. In fact, Minna’s agency daylights as a chauffeur service, with Lionel dutifully answering the phone while Tony (Bobby Cannavale) is the next in line to pick up cases. Minna’s wife, Julia (Leslie Mann) really didn’t know about her husband’s affairs, nor did she really care.

There’s a moment in the film where Lionel’s Tourette’s becomes uncontrolled as he becomes a figurative trumpet. Norton frames the outburst as a jazz note, in tune with the piece played on stage; a heartbeat convincingly connects the characters and their parts in the story together. It’s a stunning moment, which as I think about it, brings a smile to my face. Pemberton’s is accompanied by Thom Yorke’s “Daily Battles,” rearranged by Wynton Marsalis as a ballad reminiscent of 1950’s Miles Davis.

The unique way that Norton weaves the story together through this moment allows us to power through the rest of the story as each character’s fate becomes clearer. The second half of the film doesn’t play as strongly as the first, no doubt because we’ve experienced the story’s peak.

Norton uses the subtle natures of Lionel and Randolph to drive a nice twist to the story in the second half where the acting is the strongest. Willem Dafoe’s Paul Randolph shines in the second half of the film as his involvement in the story becomes more apparent.

Academy Award – nominated cinematographer Dick Pope (2006’s “The Illusionist”) uses different color pallets, a patina to support Lionel’s journey forward and a bluish hue when Lionel recalls events from the past. While the transitions are effective at conveying key points in the story, they break the flow of the story unnecessarily.

“Motherless Brooklyn” may have a title that has noses turnt up, but this subtly complex and compelling story, a jazzy riff on Polanski’s “Chinatown,” is a soulful look at a tormented soul with desires like the rest of us.

It doesn’t always work, though “Motherless Brooklyn” boasts amazing performances with strong technical achievements from the crafts supporting the film.

  • Motherless Brooklyn