Motherless Brooklyn

Critics Consensus

Motherless Brooklyn's imposing length requires patience, but strong performances and a unique perspective make this a mystery worth investigating.

61%

TOMATOMETER

Total Count: 145

79%

Audience Score

Verified Ratings: 2,296
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Movie Info

Set against the backdrop of 1950s New York, "Motherless Brooklyn" follows Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton), a lonely private detective living with Tourette Syndrome, as he ventures to solve the murder of his mentor and only friend, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Armed only with a few clues and the engine of his obsessive mind, Lionel unravels closely-guarded secrets that hold the fate of the whole city in the balance. In a mystery that carries him from gin-soaked jazz clubs in Harlem to the hard-edged slums of Brooklyn and, finally, into the gilded halls of New York's power brokers, Lionel contends with thugs, corruption and the most dangerous man in the city to honor his friend and save the woman who might be his own salvation.

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Critic Reviews for Motherless Brooklyn

All Critics (145) | Top Critics (32) | Fresh (89) | Rotten (56)

  • I'm sure that the actor and director Edward Norton is often the smartest person in the room. But thinking one is the smartest person in the room can be a bad idea.

    Nov 3, 2019 | Rating: 2.5/4 | Full Review…
  • "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.

    Nov 3, 2019 | Rating: C | Full Review…
  • Motherless Brooklyn is so messy, confusing and pointless that you don't know what's going on half the time, and couldn't care less.

    Nov 3, 2019 | Rating: 1.5/4 | Full Review…

    Rex Reed

    Observer
    Top Critic
  • ...an effective mood piece and a worthy entry in the genre.

    Nov 1, 2019 | Rating: 3/4 | Full Review…
  • It's got giant scope, but it is so slow. It is a real slog to sit through... Also, Norton's performance is really mannered and over the top.

    Nov 1, 2019 | Full Review…
  • Still, the milieu and message of "Motherless Brooklyn" ring startlingly true, at a time when raw power, rank impunity and ruthless greed are as ascendant as ever.

    Nov 1, 2019 | Rating: 2.5/4 | Full Review…

Audience Reviews for Motherless Brooklyn

  • Nov 02, 2019
    TIC TIC BOOM! – My Review of MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN (3 ½ Stars) I love a good pulpy novel sometimes, and exactly a year ago, I picked up Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, published in 1999, completely unaware that an Oscar-nominated actor had been trying to bring it to the screen for the past two decades. It just sounded like a fun read, wherein a detective with an unnamed tic disorder similar to Tourette Syndrome attempts to solve a murder. While the story itself didn't wow me, I enjoyed the first person point of view of a man who appears to burst at the seams in order to formulate words and ideas. The novel had a giddy rush whenever we took a peek into our protagonist's mind. Ed Norton, who writes, produces, directs and stars, has radically steered away from the book, changing the time period from the 1990s to the 1950s, and basically jettisoning everything which occurs after the inciting incident. In many ways he has come up with a more compelling, more relevant story, but it's all wrapped in the all-too familiar tropes of a film noir. The checklist: • Voiceover narration. Check. • Moody, Edward Hopper style cinematography. Check. • A beautiful, mysterious woman. Check. • Classic cars which go "Awooooga" when you hit the horn. Check. • An underbelly of corruption our hero can't begin to comprehend. Check. It seems as if he wanted to make his own Chinatown or L.A. Confidential and decided to shoehorn the bones of the novel into the genre to satisfy his itch. With an incredible cast and a look at how New York City developed into the city we know today because of racist development policies, Norton has made a film worth seeing. Its punishing length, however, merely serviceable direction, and a too light tone keep it from crossing over into the classic territory of the great noirs. Norton plays Lionel Essrog, one of a quartet of former orphans "adopted" by Frank Minna (Bruce Willis in a warm turn) to work at his detective agency. After an amusing slow speed chase, someone ends up dead and Lionel and his cohorts, played by Bobby Cannavale, Dallas Roberts and Ethan Suplee, get to work to solve the crime. With limited clues, Lionel, who soon breaks from the pack and works alone, leans into his disorder and photographic memory to go down the rabbit hole of NYC corruption. Along the way, he meets a black female attorney named Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who fights the injustice of urban planning wrought by Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), based on Robert Moses, a real titan of NYC, who presaged the rise of the Donald Trumps of the world. The film provides an invaluable history lesson of the city which will prevent you from ever looking at its bridges the same way again. With fine, memorable turns from Leslie Mann, Willem Dafoe, Michael Kenneth Williams, Cherry Jones, it's still Baldwin who delivers the best performance in a blazing, scary turn not seen from him since Glengarry Glen Ross. He's a classic villain who thinks his actions are for the greater good even as he spouts racist ideology, abuses women, and tramples all over human rights. Remind you of anyone currently occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? Norton brings a sweet energy to his detective, allowing us to simultaneously empathize and stand in awe of his character's special gifts. He makes for quite an original romantic lead, giving his scenes with Mbatha-Raw a special kick. He stands up for what's right, but in true noir fashion, the steamrolling ahead of someone's twisted version of an urban utopia cannot be stopped. Instead, Essrog makes a low key, low stakes decision in the end. As such, the film lacks the bitter nihilism of its predecessors. In an interview with Norton at the screening I attended, he claimed a more foreboding ending would not go down easily in these tense times. This may be true, but it leaves us with a slightly upbeat, toothless film. I still recommend it for the troublesome past it resurrects, along with an engaging story and game cast. Norton takes a big swing here, but I can't help but thinking this would have resonated more from a character and story perspective had it remained set in the 90s. Norton, though, made a film lover's decision and gets major points for shining a light on the ugliness of a city's history. Unfortunately, noir is meant to be dark, and this film sidesteps the defining characteristic of its genre. It looks like noir, but, to paraphrase the classic, "Forget it, folks. It's not Chinatown."
    Glenn G Super Reviewer

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