Motherless Brooklyn Review

Cast: Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin

Director: Edward Norton


As one of my anticipated movies of 2019, the expectations were high for Motherless Brooklyn.  Norton has been one of the greatest actors of the 30 years and I expect that he can take his prolific acting career and turn it into a strong directorial debut.  While all of the promise in the world was there, I think Norton would’ve been better off trying to adapt an easier script.  Held up by a beautiful score and another amazing performance by Norton, Motherless Brooklyn is a little too complex for its own good and undermines a movie that by all counts does everything else right.

The film follows Lionel Essrog (Norton), a New York City detective with Tourette’s syndrome who also has a photographic memory.  When his boss Frank Minna (Willis) is killed during an investigation, it is up to Lionel and his team to figure out who is behind Frank’s death, but what they uncover takes them to a world of crime and corruption they were never prepared for.  When someone makes their debut as a director, naturally the area where they’ve spent the most time will probably be the strongest portion of the movie.  Given Norton’s career as a superb actor, it’s no surprise that he’s spectacular in the leading role of his own movie.  Lionel’s Tourette’s makes the performance significantly harder for the average actor, but Norton knows exactly what type of behavior is needed for this character and applies it beautifully. Between the stuttering and the random burst of nonsense phrases that afflict a person which this condition, Norton completely immerses you in the movie and never makes you doubt that Lionel is really affected by this problem.  When this leading performance is combined with a score, editing, and cinematography that help enhance the movie and make it something special, you can see at a very fundamental level that Norton knows exactly what he is doing as a director.  That being said, there are still some substantial issues with the story and pacing that prevent it from living up to the standard I set for it.  With a runtime of 144 minutes, someone needed to step in and tell Norton when to stop.  You feel every minute of this movie and by the end you’re just begging for it to be over.  I think most of this comes from how unique the movie is with the script and the way it was adapted.  I’ve never read the source material, but I have to imagine there was a better way to take this book and create it for viewers.  It looks like the author has a long history of writing complex, detailed books like Motherless Brooklyn, so maybe it would’ve been better for a more experienced writer or director to adapt this movie.  I give Norton credit for trying and for being so passionate about this project for so long, but Motherless Brooklyn could’ve used a little more organization to complement the other elements that make it work so well.

Overall, Motherless Brooklyn has everything it needs to be a good movie, but it’s too cluttered and bloated for its own good.  With the amount of talented people in the cast and the themes the movie is looking to tackle, I can understand what the movie was going for and appreciate the attempt to do something different, but it just doesn’t work in this instance.  I see a bright future for Norton as a director, and I’m sure he wishes he could change a few things about this movie, but as a debut Motherless Brooklyn is an average, compelling movie that had the ability to be one of the best movies of the year if it was managed properly.

Overall Score: 5/10

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