Based on the stellar novel by Jonathan Lethem, MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN (2019) is a neo-noir crime film written, produced, directed, and starring Ed Norton. Not a faithful adaptation, but Norton reinvents the source material in a way that’s still compelling. Overall, I liked it a lot.
It’s New York in 1957, and Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) runs a private detective agency staffed by the Minna Men, men plucked from an orphanage and given mentorship. One of these men is Lionel Esrog (Ed Norton), a man plagued by Tourette syndrome. When a mysterious job goes wrong, Lionel decides to step up and solve it, putting him against the city’s most powerful men.
In the novel, Lionel is sort of a mascot, regularly ridiculed and overlooked because of his condition, which provides him the perfect cover as a private eye. Because nobody takes him seriously, nobody considers him a threat. In the end, he alone cracks the case, only to find out it’s not the stuff of his mentor’s romanticized PI noir affectations but far more mundane. In the film, Norton interprets the character differently, treating Tourette’s as an inconvenient disability but allowing the other characters to regard it with more sensitivity and him with more respect. I wonder if Norton went too far; honestly, the trait could have been dropped, and it wouldn’t have changed the film much at all.
In the film, Lionel ends up tangling with powerful forces seeking to demolish parts of Harlem to make way for new roads and bridges, which will enrich wealthy men, bringing in great actors like Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones, and Ethan Suplee in a 1950s New York that is immersive and amazingly constructed. Overall, it’s very well done, and the whole is compelling, though it was missing something that would have made it a far greater film. I believe it’s Lionel himself. The character is plenty likeable, but he doesn’t really undergo any change, he doesn’t really have to conquer his disability or much stemming from it. He starts the film smarter than everybody else and somewhat misunderstood, he ends it that way.
Overall, I liked the film and even admire it, though it fell far short of knocking me out.