Motherless Brooklyn has an undeniably sleek look; with a formidable cast and a narrative based on Jonathan Lethem's 1999 novel, it sets down in the more evocative setting of 1950s New York. Edward Norton does everything but sweep the floor as writer, director, producer and star of this homage to film noir and cinematic introspection.
Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) is a private detective with Tourette's syndrome.
His affliction doesn't inhibit a bright mind and is star performer at the detective agency headed by Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Minna raised Lionel from the age of twelve yet remains secretive about some clients. Lionel listens on the telephone during a business meeting; Minna is subsequently shot and killed with his own gun. Lionel resolves to hunt down his friend's killer; a forensic brain is used to replay and analyse conversations as he gradually pieces the evidence together.
A predictable storyline leads into a familiar tale of corruption and various palms being greased for a multitude of reasons. Alec Baldwin as slimy parks commissioner Moses Randolph turns in a workmanlike performance as does Willem Dafoe in the role of scheming opportunist. But it’s inevitably Edward Norton who takes the plaudits as the tortured but gifted Lionel. It does however beg the question: would the story have worked better in a contemporary setting as the original book demanded?
Ultimately, the film falls into the gap between promise and delivery. A potentially gripping story is undone by a stilted script reducing the film to an almost pedestrian pace. Lionel's condition drops into the margins of the story; which is surprising as it relocates to the 1950s when Tourette’s was barely understood. Yet reactions of the characters are almost cursory. The mannerisms are toned down for obvious reasons but does the story a disservice as a major character trait seems to be buried. However slow it might seem the narrative still finds a natural level of engagement with the audience. But it is heavy going at times, relying heavily on the cast to carry it through numerous rough patches. Stylistically, the film is beautifully constructed, but owes its existence to film noir and offers nothing more than a loving tribute to the genre.