One might assume that’s Lionel Essrog’s favorite word. He randomly exclaims it — along with other outbursts — dozens of times a day. Wonder why? Well, so does he. Today his affliction is better known as Tourette syndrome, but in the less enlightened late 1950s he’s often dismissed as a twitchy, loudmouthed freak — even in New York City, where freaks are a dime a dozen.
This condition doesn’t exactly help Lionel (Edward Norton) maintain subtlety, a rather important trait for a private investigator. But his brain isn’t entirely a curse -- he’s a quick thinker with an uncanny memory and attention for detail, skills he’s refined under the guidance of his devilishly cool boss and mentor, Frank (Bruce Willis).
But when an investigation goes haywire, Frank ends up shot. Lionel watches as the closest thing he’s ever had to a father bleeds out in the operating room.
With only a couple cryptic conversations to go off of, Lionel dives into Frank’s past in the hopes of tracking his killers and whatever deeds — or misdeeds — might have led him to the grave. What follows is an often gripping, unexpectedly twisty journey into the corruption and abuse of power that pervades postwar Brooklyn, introducing Lionel to some of the boldest and slimiest personalities the city has to offer.
Adding to this decade’s already stacked list of performers showcasing their behind-the-camera chops, Norton — who makes his screenwriting debut and hasn’t directed in nearly 20 years — helms “Motherless Brooklyn” gracefully and with a brazen love for film noir, though his eye for storytelling rarely succumbs to conventionality. Much like its protagonist, this movie takes odd but effective approaches to collecting and processing the information necessary to keep viewers engaged, though it sometimes fails to recognize which details are expendable. But more on that later.
The cast — mostly a veritable who’s-who of aging Hollywood machismo — clicks harmoniously with the film’s shadowy sensibilities. Each line of silky, whiskey-coated dialogue is delivered with a proper dose of knowingness and charm. Norton, though playing someone who can’t help but stick out, manages to atone for Lionel’s inherent awkwardness with a wide-eyed affability not often granted to big-screen P.I.s. He meshes particularly splendidly with Gugu Mbatha-Raw, whose layered portrayal of an intimidating but good-natured public advocate generally steers clear of the genre’s long-established gender tropes.
Other tropes of noir films are exhibited a little more shamelessly in the production, though not necessarily for the worst. Daniel Pemberton’s dynamic jazz score narrowly avoids on-the-nose territory by throwing in just enough electronic tampering to keep things interesting, and the film’s art direction and production design are dazzlingly transportative when the sets and costumes aren’t obscured by gobs of cigarette smoke.
The one great failure of “Motherless Brooklyn” is its overindulgence, as hinted at by its 144-minute runtime. For a movie that gives viewers an exciting main story with so many nice things to look at and listen to, it doesn’t seem to quite know when to stop, seemingly so enamored with itself that it overlooks the needs — and attention span — of its audience. Among the fat that should’ve been trimmed is a wholly expendable subplot involving one of Lionel’s colleagues (Bobby Cannavale) and Frank’s widow (Leslie Mann), neither of whom are written with even a dash of pertinence or likability and whose time on-screen is unfailingly sleepy.
Norton’s attempt to resuscitate a long-dormant genre may not turn heads as violently as he hopes; viewers expecting nonstop thrills may even find their eyelids drooping. Still, “Motherless Brooklyn” provides just the right amount of novelistic twists and turns and comfortably enveloping aesthetics to keep crime-drama devotees satisfied.
John Battiston, who screened "Motherless Brooklyn" at the 2019 Middleburg Film Festival, is a Times-Mirror reporter and founder of the Reel Underdogs podcast. Contact him at email@example.com. Reel Underdogs is not affiliated with the Times-Mirror.