Motherless Brooklyn Is a Passion Project Without Heart

Edward Norton’s adaptation of the 1999 novel feels like a glassy diorama of a gumshoe thriller.

A still from the movie 'Motherless Brooklyn' of characters in conversation
Warner Bros.

Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel, was defined partly by nostalgia. Set in contemporary times, it had the flavor of a classic gumshoe thriller from the ’50s, a pulpy chronicle of detectives and gangsters on the mean streets of New York. Now Edward Norton is leaning even further into the story’s throwback spirit. The Oscar-nominated actor is the writer, director, and star of a film adaptation that turns Lethem’s neo-noir into a regular old noir by actually setting it 60 years ago.

There’s a boldness to this approach, given that studios don’t make many grown-up thrillers with high production values anymore. As befits a sweeping period drama, Motherless Brooklyn is replete with vintage costumes, shiny old cars, and a fancy CGI re-creation of New York’s old, demolished Penn Station. But it feels hermetic and glassy, a diorama version of a venerable genre that’s strangely passionless for what is clearly Norton’s passion project. Motherless Brooklyn has all the markers of a good Oscar-season movie: a talented cast, worthy source material, a script loaded with complex social issues. Even so, it doesn’t add up to much.

Just as in Lethem’s novel, the protagonist of Motherless Brooklyn is Lionel Essrog (played by Norton), a private eye coping with Tourette’s syndrome and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Lionel is the greenhorn junior partner to Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), a seen-it-all sleuth who serves as Lionel’s boss and mentor. When the film begins, Lionel and his pals Tony (Bobby Cannavale), Gilbert (Ethan Suplee), and Danny (Dallas Roberts) work with Frank at a small agency in Carroll Gardens. While pursuing a routine-seeming case, Frank gets entangled in a web of gangland criminality that Lionel then has to unravel. And just as in many a mystery novel, everything leads back to City Hall.

Some of these plot elements come straight from Lethem’s novel, but many don’t—and the ways in which Norton digresses from the original are both radical and baffling. The central figure of villainy in the film is Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), an imperious tycoon and the head of several city-planning departments who is quite obviously inspired by the real-life New York figure of infamy Robert Moses. Baldwin is a spot-on casting choice who can play an arrogant aristocrat with ease; Norton styles him as a hunk of granite in suspenders, an immovable force of corruption in a fundamentally unfair city.

Norton has essentially crossed Lethem’s book with The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s totemic biography of Moses—a daring decision that, theoretically, could have been fascinating. But the two stories just don’t mix: Lionel is an investigator of petty grievances and Brooklyn gangland egos, not a reporter dedicated to digging through public records. Yet apart from the plotting about Randolph’s messy personal life, that archival sifting constitutes much of the action in Motherless Brooklyn.

What does all this have to do with Lionel and his condition? Very little. More often than not, he’s merely a conduit for reams of unrelated exposition. Lethem’s novel endeavors to put the reader inside Lionel’s head, showing the ways in which his hyper-attention to detail and constant struggles with control both help and hinder his fact-finding abilities. The film occasionally tries to do the same; there are a couple of fantasy sequences, including one with Michael K. Williams as an enigmatic trumpet player, that illustrate how music helps calm Lionel’s mind. But the burden of Lionel’s characterization falls to Norton, who overplays his hand. On-screen, he is nervy and overflowing with tics, yelling swear words and jerking his head violently; too often, the portrayal comes off as an uncomfortable caricature. It doesn’t help that Norton, who has been trying to make this film for years, is clearly too old for the role of a young, impetuous rookie.

Motherless Brooklyn is very long—nearly two and a half hours—and extremely light on action and tension, which is a recipe for boring movie audiences. While Norton’s goal was evidently to deliver a period epic that marries fun genre material with something historical and weighty, the final product fails on all counts. The noir elements aren’t seedy or exciting enough. The history is just a muddled simplification of real life. And the entire film somehow looks flat and beige, despite the strong production design and the work of the top cinematographer Dick Pope. At best, the sociohistorical drama version of Motherless Brooklyn is an interesting idea for a movie—one that should have stayed on the page.