Brooklyn Lows

Why is ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ Set in the 1950s? And Other Problems.

I saw the Motherless Brooklyn movie. It screened at the Austin Film Festival. In the lobby after the movie, I saw a guy giving it Five Stars on the evaluation sheet. This is why studios screen movies in Austin. Audiences here will give five stars to anything. They’re like dogs; they like any treat you offer them, except maybe lettuce. This is not a five-star movie.

Motherless Brooklyn is a passion project from the actor and failed Incredible Hulk Edward Norton. Apparently his passion is to be the movie version of an East Village bookshelf in the year 2000. The novel Motherless Brooklyn, published in 1999, was a product of the Peak Jonathan period of American Literature. Jonathan Lethem, one of the Top Three Jonathans, specializes in taking exciting literary genres, removing them of their blood, and refilling them with “intelligence.” For Motherless Brooklyn, he sucked some of the life out of noir and turned it into a voice-y puzzlebox that the smart set loved.

Directed by: Edward Norton
Written by: Edward Norton
Starring: Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, Bruce Willis, Michael Kenneth Williams, Cherry Jones, Bobby Cannavale
Running time: 144 min


The book’s best trick was its loving depiction of a basically pre-gentrified Brooklyn at the turn of the last century, the last moment before the borough became a sitcom backdrop. But for some reason, Norton decided to move the Motherless Brooklyn film action to 1957, a very different time in Brooklyn’s history. He plays the same character as in the novel, a detective named Lionel Essrog who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome. In 1999, everyone knew about Tourette’s. It was interesting to feature a main character with that disease, and innovative to structure a novel around his topsy-turvy mind. But in 1957, basically no one knew about Tourette’s. So instead Norton, in between infinite yips, says “there’s something wrong with my brain” about 25 times.

It’s been many years since I read Motherless Brooklyn, so I can’t honestly remember the plot of the novel. It wasn’t really a page-turner though; mostly, the book was about Brooklyn vibe and Tourette’s. In the movie, however, Norton as Essrog gets caught up in some kind of ridiculous urban-renewal scheme perpetrated by Alec Baldwin, playing a thinly-disguised version of Robert Moses, the real historical figure and the subject of Robert Caro’s epic biography The Power Broker, another perennial smarty-pants bookshelf favorite. Baldwin is always fun to watch, and in Motherless Brooklyn he’s basically Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock without the jokes.

Norton stumbles around Brooklyn, twitching and getting beat up by toughs. Meanwhile, Willem Dafoe makes ridiculous speeches with spittle in his beard, Cherry Jones makes pretentious speeches about gentrification, and Bobby Cannavale does his usual unwelcome mook bit. Michael Kenneth Williams, Omar Little from The Wire, plays “Trumpet Man,” who is basically Miles Davis combined with a deus ex machina, a magical black jazz dude. Bruce Willis also appears, mainly in flashbacks and drug hallucinations. Apparently, it’s very easy to get from Brooklyn to Harlem, since the movie spends about half its time at a jazz club up there. This allows Norton to fall for an activist played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who is, I can safely posit, one of the most beautiful women in the world.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw (left) as Laura Rose and Edward Norton as Lionel Essrog, old enough to be her grandpa in “Motherless Brooklyn.”

Motherless Brooklyn would have us believe that this brilliant and stunning person has no love in her life, so she instead takes up with a broke private dick who has Tourette’s Syndrome. Also, he’s about 20 years older than she is. At most, Lionel Essrog should be in his mid-30s. Otherwise, it makes so sense that he would be someone’s protegé, rescued from an orphanage. But Edward Norton, talented as he might be, is actually 50 years old. He’s closer in age to Baldwin and Willis than he is to his love interest. Next to her, he looks like a withered sweet potato fry in a bad sweater. When they kiss, they have no chemistry. It’s like she’s giving grandpa a peck.

The movie does contain at least one good car chase, vaguely reminiscent of The French Connection, as well as a bit of hitman gun-and-fist action that works pretty well but not as well as in The Untouchables. There are some genuine crowd-pleasing moments and some decent laugh lines in the narration. The 1950s atmospherics are nice, and consistent. But again, Motherless Brooklyn is a 1990s novel. This is some sort of weird throwback noir polemic about slum clearance. Plus, it’s two-and-a-half hours long. I could have done without the Bobby Cannavale and Leslie Mann stuff, and that was only one scene.

Motherless Brooklyn, instead of being an adaptation of Peak Jonathan, instead wants to be a modern version of Chinatown. But Chinatown, made in 1974, showed a Los Angeles from only 37 years before. Motherless Brooklyn would have to have been set in 1982 to match that, and yet it goes way, way further into the past to make its points that absolute power corrupts absolutely and that bebop is good music. Motherless Brooklyn is a better film than other literary novels that have received godawful adaptations this year, like Where’d You Go, Bernadette? and The Goldfinch. But at least those films wrestled with their source material unsuccessfully. Motherless Brooklyn is like a new novel inspired by an old novel that, honestly, wasn’t that inspiring in the first place. But sure, give it five stars, dude. In Austin, where everything is awesome.

This concludes my review of the Motherless Brooklyn movie.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

One thought on “Brooklyn Lows

  • November 9, 2019 at 6:17 pm


    You are too kind to this steaming pile of crap that stole two hours of my life (my fiancé and I walked out just before the two hour mark, and we don’t care how it ends). I felt compelled to end it myself, well before it took one more moment of my time.



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