I’m chasing his footsteps.
Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) was more than a boss to Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton). This man plucked him out of an orphanage wherein the nuns beat him because they believed his Tourette syndrome was a sign of wavering faith. Frank taught Lionel that anyone using God’s name to harm a child isn’t someone worth listening to, took him under his wing, and hired him (along with three other orphans in Bobby Cannavale‘s Tony, Dallas Roberts‘ Danny, and Ethan Suplee‘s Gilbert) as a gumshoe for his private detective agency. That’s where he saw this kid’s talents beyond an affliction outside of his control. Lionel’s photographic memory made him irreplaceable over the years, but sadly wasn’t enough to save his mentor’s life. It might, however, be enough to find justice.
Writer/director Edward Norton’s adaptation of Jonathan Lethem‘s novel Motherless Brooklyn opens on this tragic day. Lionel and Gilbert are with Frank as backup despite his refusal to tell them why he needs it. The voices and disjointed names and phrases heard over a telephone left off the hook as a listening device is therefore cryptic at best until a coded message is spoken. Lionel rushes back to the car and Gilbert tails the goons who’ve taken Frank hostage over the bridge and into Queens. But catching up to them before the gun goes off doesn’t prove possible. So they’re left with nothing but Frank’s final word: “Formosa.” No motive. No paperwork. No leads. Lionel won’t be deterred, though. He won’t rest until an answer is found.
Thus begins his journey down a rabbit hole consisting of jazz clubs, city politics, and familial squabbles. Lionel has a couple of addresses and the knowledge that the ire of Frank’s murderers stemmed from him tailing a Black woman instead of the target they paid him to follow. Enter Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a law graduate working under a civic spark-plug (Cherry Jones‘ Gabby Horowitz) desperate to stop the removal of minority-occupied housing for highways and parks built by the most hated and beloved man (depending on your economic status) in New York: Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin‘s unsubtle nod to Robert Moses). Someone as powerful as Randolph wouldn’t care about a guy like Frank unless he knew how to derail a forthcoming vote. So what does Laura know?
That’s the million-dollar question—one that gets Lionel beat-up by Randolph’s heavies (Radu Spinghel and Fisher Stevens) and those working for Laura’s father (Robert Wisdom‘s Billy). He gets it from both sides because no one really knows which he’s on. The fact he starts using a reporter’s stolen credentials to get closer to those involved hardly helps. And all the while you have Tony being shifty at work (Is something going on between him and Leslie Mann as Frank’s widow?), a crackpot named Paul (Willem Dafoe) showing up everywhere to start riots, and a trumpet player (Michael Kenneth Williams) who sees Lionel’s Tourette’s as something akin to his own musical genius. Their brains provide them unparalleled intelligence in spurts while also torturing them the rest of the day.
This comparison is the one glaring flaw I see in Motherless Brooklyn because it shows how Norton (and assumedly Lethem) combats the use of his lead’s “handicap” by rendering it as a “gift” instead. Lionel’s Tourette’s is therefore used as a means of ensuring he’s simultaneously smart, likable, and forever disregarded as “less than.” It’s a cheat giving the filmmakers an excuse to let their lead have all the best qualities of a hero despite intentionally drawing him as a self-conscious nobody. More than giving this character a physical or psychological impairment solely for quirk, they’ve done so to service his placement within the plot. It’s why people don’t pay him any mind and why he makes them pay for that underestimation. They need Lionel to be “abnormal.”
I’ll give them credit, however, for never treating it as a joke. Lionel is forever apologizing for his outbursts and obsessive compulsions while those he interacts with more or less tell him in earnest that it’s okay. And despite his co-workers calling him “Freakshow” with love, they do also respect his anger when they cross the line. Even so, this story could have been written without all of it. Lionel could have just been a shy guy with a photographic memory trying to avenge his dead father figure. The Tourette’s doesn’t actually do anything but call attention to the fact that the storytellers are championing his differences. To truly earn that pat on the back is to instead be inclusive without any stigmatization—good or bad.
Giving Lionel complexity regardless thankfully outweighs this misstep (even if it’s woven into the very fabric of what unfolds) because the mystery itself is beautifully crafted with subtle nuance leading us just astray enough to be surprised when new details emerge. We’re asked to worry about finding Frank’s killer, keeping Laura safe, and exposing Randolph as the corrupt, power-hungry villain he is underneath the grand ideas that neglect to consider their collateral damage. Lionel stumbles through a web of clues with a natural sense of progression rather than overt “A-ha!” moments that demean the audience’s intelligence while Norton moves Letham’s setting from the present-day to 1950s noir without ever falling into caricature. The slow pace ensures it’ll never be flashy, but that only makes it feel more authentic.
This is how we’re able to understand the raw emotions on display and the constant tug-of-war between hearts and minds by those vocal enough to steer others towards a truth they know despite never having the courage to speak it aloud themselves. That’s what power does, though. It creates monsters, victims, and saviors alike. Frank was Lionel’s protector and maybe he can return the favor by becoming Laura’s. And that in and of itself can be enough. Even though we’re talking about a citywide issue moving well beyond these individual characters, Motherless Brooklyn never allows itself to bite off more than it can chew. Small personal victories are often more worthwhile than swinging for the fences only to come up short. Save one to give hope to many.
It’s a lesson of which we must be reminded these days since many issues on-screen recall those in Washington DC and other metropolises today. I wish Mbatha-Raw had more time to spend with her fiery persona at the start since she’s eventually relegated to damsel in distress, but a scene like her helping Lionel relax at a nightclub is profound nevertheless. Dafoe lends his role a deserved emotional center you might not expect after his more prevalent outbursts and Baldwin is formidable as always playing the unstoppable and uncompromising king of the jungle. But they’re all revolving around Lionel—an actor’s showcase Norton has presented to himself after being removed from that spotlight far too long. He delivers a heartfelt performance as unflashy and undeniably effective as the whole.
 © 2019 Warner Bros. Ent. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Glen Wilson. Caption: EDWARD NORTON as Lionel Essrog in Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama “MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
 © 2019 Warner Bros. Ent. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Glen Wilson. Caption: (L-r) GUGU MBATHA-RAW as Laura Rose and CHERRY JONES as Gabby Horowitz in Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama “MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
 © 2019 Warner Bros. Ent. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Glen Wilson. Caption: (L-r) ALEC BALDWIN as Moses Randolph and EDWARD NORTON as Lionel Essrog in Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama “MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.