Crime Drama

Of Gumshoes and Gangsters: A TIFF Review of ‘Motherless Brooklyn’

September 19, 2019Ben MK

Based on the award-winning novel of the same name by Jonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn is a noir mystery with an unorthodox protagonist — a private investigator with Tourette syndrome and a touch of OCD. But with an unnecessarily long and equally overwrought storyline, writer/director Edward Norton's passion project proves to be more of a test of viewers' patience than anything else.

An atmospheric period piece set in 1950s Brooklyn, the film follows Lionel Essrog (Norton), a mild-mannered gumshoe whose proclivity for blurting out odd phrases at socially awkward times is outmatched only by his unnatural ability to retain and regurgitate large amounts of information. But when his boss, the hard-boiled Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), is murdered, Lionel must put all of his God-given talent to use to solve the crime. As a result, he soon finds himself neck deep in what could very well be the political scandal of the century — one involving New York's most powerful property developer, his reclusive brother, an illegitimate daughter, and a racially motivated scheme to target the poorest segments of the city's population, all in the name of progress.

With an all-star cast that includes Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Willem Dafoe, the result may not live up to Norton's lofty ambitions, but it's certainly not for lack of trying. That said, Motherless Brooklyn isn't completely without merit; and for moviegoers craving an old-fashioned detective story — the kind Hollywood no longer seems inclined to make — it does an adequate job filling that void.

Motherless Brooklyn makes its international premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. Its runtime is 2 hrs. 24 min.

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