"Motherless Brooklyn" isn't a flawless film, but for just Edward Norton's first script and second time directing a feature film, the end result is pretty good.
Along with writing and directing credits, Norton also stars in this picture, portraying a private detective named Lionel in 1950s New York City. While he has a brilliant mind, though, Lionel also lives with Tourette's Syndrome, making subtle investigations and interviews with suspects difficult.
The protagonist has to fight through his disorder, though, as his career takes a major turn when his boss, Frank (Bruce Willis) is killed. Putting his skills to the test, Lionel begins investigating Frank's murder and from there he unravels corruption right to the doors of City Hall.
"Motherless Brooklyn" is very much a slow burn drama, with the mysteries surrounding corruption and power-grabs peeled back bit-by-bit as the film goes on. This works in plenty of movies, and to its credit, there are times when the unraveling is engaging and watching the process play out is compelling.
However, there are also times when the movie slows down a bit too much and the nearly two and a half hour run time really rears its head. This is partly because the picture bites off a bit more than it could chew with the amount of characters.
What exposes the film as being too long, though, is the third act where the movie wraps up. Unfortunately, what the movie eventually leads up to and finishes off with comes across as far too underwhelming considering the time investment an audience makes in it.
What makes up for the narrative shortcomings, though, is following Norton's protagonist down a noir-like path. While the movie is a crime drama, it's also serviceable as a character study.
The picture follows Lionel coming into his own as a better detective, ready to take the lead and dive deeper into an investigation than he might have before. Viewing the protagonist's commitment to the truth and his tenacity is compelling and watching him work through his disorder is endearing.
This of course is made possible by Norton, who is fantastic as the detective. Not only does he portray the brilliance of his character well, he also makes the Tourette's Syndrome appear very convincing. It never comes across as Norton is exaggerating with the disorder as the portrayal is clear and honest.
The supporting cast is also quite strong, with solid performances coming from Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin and Willem Dafoe.
Another area deserving praise is the production design and cinematography. The New York City of the 1950s is fantastically recreated and the movie was beautifully shot by Dick Pope. While the movie could have used a bit more grit and grime to match its noir storytelling, the movie still looks great.
"Motherless Brooklyn" is an above average entry from Norton, who poured a lot of work into this project. There are flaws holding it back from the higher tier of corruption/crime films here, but the performances, visual style, as well as a good mix of mystery and character study makes it appealing. 3.5 out of 5.