Crime thriller without thrills

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn (IMDB)

Adapting the 1999 novel of the same name, Motherless Brooklyn is a labour of love for its writer-director-star Edward Norton. Source: ACOFB.

Reviewed by Callum Ryan, ACOFB

Norton likely cashed in a substantial amount of goodwill to get the project greenlit and assemble the impressive roster of onscreen talent (he first acquired the rights over two decades ago).

Though handsomely made and set in a fascinating period in recent American history (New York City in the 1950s), the story and the unusual mystery at its centre aren’t exactly gripping. While there must have been something in Jonathan Lethem’s novel that inspired Norton to pour himself into the work, whatever that was doesn’t seem to have made the transition from the page to the screen.

The plot centres on Lionel Essrog (Norton), a small-time NYC detective who has near-photographic memory but suffers from Tourette’s, a disorder that manifests itself in an inability to control his impulses. The result is a lot of jerky tics and rapid, stream of consciousness wordplay as Lionel spits out a jumble of words resembling choppy poetry.

Norton’s work partially recalls Joaquin’s Phoenix’s lauded transformation in Joker, both men painfully contorting their bodies as they do battle with their non-compliant minds. The similarities don’t go much further than that, because Lionel never feels that different to the actor himself – the character just looks and feels like Edward Norton grappling with a disorder, without much added depth or psychological richness beyond that.

One day during a planned meet with a client, Lionel’s mentor and boss Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) is shot and killed. With Frank’s other remaining investigators, Tony (Bobby Cannavale), Gilbert (Ethan Suplee) and Danny (Dallas Roberts, wonderfully sensitive), Lionel begins to investigate Frank’s open cases to find his killer. This path leads him toward Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a black girl whose father owns a jazz club frequented by Frank, and a corporation tied to shadowy pollie-cum-property developer and urban renewal evangelist Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin).

Though the mystery is a little flat, the film’s setting alone should keep viewers interested throughout the laborious runtime.

Motherless Brooklyn is available to rent or purchase through Apple TV, Google Play and the Microsoft Store.

Motherless Brooklyn: Starring Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe. Directed by Edward Norton. 144 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes, violence, coarse language, drug use and sexual references).

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Motherless Brooklyn (ACOFB)

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