Motherless Brooklyn lands somewhere between parody and homage

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 21: (L-R) Actor/Director Edward Norton poses for photos with Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Alec Baldwin during SiriusXM's Town Hall with the cast of "Motherless Brooklyn" on October 21, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for SiriusXM)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 21: (L-R) Actor/Director Edward Norton poses for photos with Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Alec Baldwin during SiriusXM's Town Hall with the cast of "Motherless Brooklyn" on October 21, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for SiriusXM) /

Motherless Brooklyn, set in1950’s New York, follows a detective with Tourette’s syndrome trying to solve a murder. Is it worth the 144 minutes, though?

In Motherless Brooklyn, Edward Norton serves as the lead, the writer (adapted from Jonathan Lethem’s novel), and director. This is the first thing that gets your attention. Then you look at the cast. Besides Norton, Motherless Brooklyn features performances from: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, and Bruce Willis. There are eight Oscar nominations and a ton of other hardware on that list.

So then we move to the story. First of all, Motherless Brooklyn is set in the 1950’s. Edward Norton plays a lonely detective named Lionel Essrog who battles Tourette’s Syndrome. In the movie, he’s on a mission to solve the murder of his mentor Frank Minna (Willis).

Now while the 1950’s detective part of the film seems pretty straight forward, the Tourette’s Syndrome adds a wrinkle that can make or break the film. Historically, the disorder has been used as a source of comedy in film in a way that usually downplay’s the seriousness of the affliction and its sufferers. In what is perceived as a serious film, I was intrigued as to how this would play on-screen when our protagonist is going to be the one who can’t control his tongue.

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The tics

We’ll start by addressing the elephant in the room. How did Motherless Brooklyn handle Essrog’s Tourette’s syndrome and how does it affect the film? Quite honestly I think it does enhance the overall experience. While I wanted to hate it, imagining the film without these moments makes it a very boring movie. The small comedic breaks throughout the movie manage to make the run time more bearable.

We’re introduced to the tics, initially, in a comedic way. During the planning of an operation Essrog’s tics keep flaring up. All of them are related to something that someone else just said. Willis’ character Minna intentionally sets them off in this early scene. As Essrog describes it in the film, and I’m paraphrasing: “It’s like a piece of my brain broke off and has a mind of its own.” Lionel’s personality is clearly serious and sensitive but his tics are an unfiltered loudmouth who says the first thing that comes to his mind.

In narration, Essrog talks to us about how he uses gum, weed, “and sometimes harder stuff” to get it under control when it gets bad. He talks about how his mother would soothe him when he was young as well. He also has conversations about his disorder, the most intimate taking place after he meets Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s character Laura Rose.

Overall, I think that Norton taking the time to speak with members of the Tourette’s Association of America (and getting their approval) shows that he cared about how he handled this aspect of the character. He talked about wanting to pay respect to the humanity of the character and not letting them be defined by the disorder. With Motherless Brooklyn I do believe he captured a realistic portrayal of a person with Tourette’s. At times you do pity him for having to struggle with the disorder, but he also allows you to laugh with him.

The pacing

As for the way the story unfolds, there are a few thoughts that come to mind. For one, Motherless Brooklyn did not need to be as long as it was. Part of the issue with having one person write, direct, and produce the film is that no one can force him to cut anything. The story does meander for a bit in the middle and then all of the tape comes unraveled very dramatically near the end.

You get a clue every 15 minutes for the first hour and 45 minutes, then you get five clues within the next 15. Because of this, despite the way the comedic moments break things up, the pacing makes this movie inaccessible to mainstream audiences.

The main issue that affects the pacing is that Lionel stumbles upon a local government conspiracy. While it is related to Minna’s death, the movie spends far too much time on the political scenes. Watching a protest that was set up, watching a town hall meeting, seeing Minna sworn into office. You can lose at least 15 minutes by cutting out these moments alone.

The period

The best part of Motherless Brooklyn, to me at least, is the way it takes you back in time. Walking out of the theater it took me a while to adjust back to modern-day as the score, the jazz, the accents, and the vibe of the film had infected me. In this way I do think the movie pays homage to the film noir period in an amazing way. (The comedy, and some of the over-the-top acting is the part that makes it feel like a parody at times.)

My favorite scene with regard to this trip through time had to be when Norton has a dance with Mbatha-Raw at the jazz club. Michael Kenneth William’s Trumpet Man decides to dedicate a slow song to Laura Rose and she asks Lionel to dance with her. (Side note: Michael Kenneth Williams might need to get a Best Supporting Actor nod.) Lionel’s tics have been set off by the music and Rose instinctively strokes his back and neck and calms them. There was so much beauty in this scene, you really have to see it even if you don’t see the movie.


So far Motherless Brooklyn has strong reviews, and it should. Currently, the critic rating is at 61% and the audience rating is at 79% on Rotten Tomatoes. A look at the $3.6 million at the box office tells the story however. Most people who were willing to look at the run time and the setting and still watch the movie are the type that aren’t going to admire the beauty in spite of the flaws. However, as I mentioned above, the general public is not going to buy that ticket.

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Among those who did see the film and didn’t like it, the reasons are chalked up mostly to the pace, the fact that they didn’t think there was a great enough payoff, or there was too much of the parody aspect.

If the story interests you, I suggest you go for the ride and the scenery alone. Let the rest be a bonus.

Motherless Brooklyn, is currently available in theaters.