Review: 'Motherless Brooklyn' gets a little too much gum on its shoe

Edward North writes, directs and stars in this film noir that takes too long to find itself

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Edward Norton is a private investigator with Tourette's syndrome in "Motherless Brooklyn," a faithful if rudderless homage to gumshoe film noir mysteries of decades past. 

Norton plays Lionel Essrog, whose mentor and father figure Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) is gunned down in an alley by some gangster thugs. It's 1950s New York City, and Norton — who wrote and directed the film, adapting from the 1999 novel by Jonathan Lethem — colors his world with jazz clubs, gin joints and shady characters who lead Lionel down the path to the truth, one lethargic step at a time.  

Edward Norton in "Motherless Brooklyn."

Lionel's a street kid with just enough wherewithal to sneak into an office building with a stolen press ID, ask the right question of the right secretary and come away with something approaching a big tip. Those tips eventually lead him to Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), the Trump-like bigwig who's in charge of the city's housing contracts and plays with properties like New York is his Monopoly board. 

Wait, housing contracts? Is that what the movie is up to? In part, yes, but in true noir fashion there's also a dame, Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), with a mysterious identity. And a tipster, Paul (Willem Dafoe) who knows a lot about city corruption. And a partner, Tony (Bobby Cannavale), with questionable loyalties. 

And so on. Norton does an admirable job of recreating the mood and atmosphere of a crime noir, but the script is stiff and overstuffed, and lacks a gripping human element. Lionel's tics — he yells non-sequiturs in the middle of conversation — create issues with the tenor of the film, resulting in unexpected bursts of laughter.

"Motherless Brooklyn" wants to be taken seriously, but it's like a tip written on a matchbook that's been smudged out by the rain. It leads nowhere.


'Motherless Brooklyn'


Rated R: for language throughout including some sexual references, brief drug use, and violence

Running time: 144 minutes