Motherless Brooklyn: Edward Norton's film-noir writing, directing and starring turn is a worthy 'Chinatown East'

By Jim Slotek


Kind of a “Chinatown-East,” Motherless Brooklyn is the sort of risk-taking effort that deserves kudos whether it works or not. As it happens, this lengthy film-noir labour of love by writer, director and star Edward Norton, is well worth the ride.

Norton radically adapted Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel (which was set contemporarily), placing it in New York in the ‘50s, with the social-historical subtext of the brutalizing urban renewal projects of infamous city planner Robert Moses (thinly disguising the real-life person as “Moses Randolph,” a Trump-like power-mongering faux populist played by Alec Baldwin).

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Edward Norton go all noir in Motherless Brooklyn

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Edward Norton go all noir in Motherless Brooklyn

So Motherless Brooklyn, becomes more of a “message” movie than its author intended. Norton’s own grandfather, the late James Rouse, was a progressive urban planner. And so presumably, the filmmaker has his heart invested in the story.

What he kept from the novel was its title character, an investigator at a small-time detective office, afflicted with Tourette Syndrome. Lionel Essrog – a.k.a. Brooklyn - becomes obsessed with solving the murder of his boss Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who was shot while on an unexplained case. 

When you first hear Brooklyn’s vocal “tics,” you may worry that two-and-a-half hours of them might turn out to be an ordeal. The surprise is how smoothly those tics turn into wordplay, almost “Beat poetry.” (As he says about his then-unnamed condition, “It makes me say funny things, but I’m not trying to be funny.”) The skillfully-rendered outbursts become almost a second stream of dialogue, one that flows in time with the jazz saxophone that permeates the shadowy smoke-filled bar where Lionel makes his contacts.

His sleuthing (and occasional beatings and knock-out blows to the head) lead him to a clash of social movements, public organizers with bullhorns demanding the city cease its effort to tear down mostly Black and Jewish neighborhoods to make way for expressways. And it connects him to a young attorney named Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who is somehow connected to the events of Frank’s death.

These events reveal themselves slowly, true to the movie’s mood – set in the soundtrack by Daily Battles, a song by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, re-arranged moodily at one point by Wynton Marsalis to sound like a “lost” Miles Davis work. A dissolute apparent crank who turns up to shout at public meetings (Willem Dafoe) turns out to have a storied past and familial ties to the chicanery. A black club owner who is “in the way,” turns up dead.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn’s fellow gumshoes slowly lose enthusiasm (or are violently dissuaded) from joining him in his sleuthing.

A long haul of revelations of corruption and murder ends in a final act that seems a little too simple for the complications that preceded it. But Motherless Brooklyn is about a journey, part of it spent in the head of one of the most unusual of detective characters.

Many filmmakers are drawn to noir, generations after that genre had its flashpoint of popularity. In assembling Motherless Brooklyn, Norton checks all the genre-boxes with style and flair and makes a solid, subliminal statement about things that haven’t changed in our society.

Motherless Brooklyn. Written and directed by Edward Norton. Starring Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Alec Baldwin. Screens at the Toronto International Film Festival Tuesday, Sept. 10 and Wednesday, Sept. 11 at the Princess of Wales Theatre, and at the Scotiabank 1 on Sunday, Sept. 15.