It's a curious thing that for all the criticism that The Irishman got over its length (criticism that has some merit), Motherless Brooklyn feels longer despite it being shorter than Scorsese's epic. Motherless Brooklyn does have a great visual style that evokes a film noir manner, but it is a bit self-indulgent and seems more interested in being a Robert Moses biopic than a taut mystery.
Lionel Essrog (writer/director Edward Norton) works with his friend and mentor Frank Minna (Bruce Willis essentially in a cameo). Lionel suffers from Tourette Syndrome, but his exceptional recall makes him invaluable. Also, Minna is fond of Lionel.
Minna is killed for knowing too much, and despite Lionel and fellow gumshoe Gilbert Coney's (Ethan Supree) best efforts can't save Minna. His final words to Lionel, "Formosa", lead Lionel into a murky web of deception and crime. It involves powerful New York Parks Commissioner Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), who wants to tear down more "slums" to build his beloved highways. His latest plans are opposed by urban renewal activist Gabby Horowitz (Cherry Jones), aided by Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a "colored" woman.
Also fighting against Randolph, albeit more discreetly, is Paul (Willem Dafoe), who is Moses' brother. Under the guise of being a reporter Lionel keeps digging, finding a cauldron of murder and corruption that goes into even those closest to him, putting Laura's life in danger and tying her and the Randolphs in surprising ways.
It seems rather curious that Motherless Brooklyn felt more like a limited series than a feature-length film. In fact, I think it would have worked better if Norton had opted to make it so, for you could stop at any point in the film and pick up where you left off surprisingly easy.
What I found in Motherless Brooklyn is a film that is big on style but small on substance. As director Norton made some good choices, such as transferring the setting from the 1990's to 1950's. The film captures that sense of time which makes for interesting viewing. You have a feel for the era, which is a good thing.
Norton also did well in having Daniel Pemberton craft a strong jazz score to accompany the visuals, though at times Norton also displayed an unfortunate self-indulgence by having an excessively long sequence set at a jazz club where we almost expect Miles Davis to pop out. The surprisingly romantic music playing when Lionel has to tell Laura about her father's death is, however, curious.
The self-indulgence continues in the sometimes too-artsy visuals, such as a brief dream sequence where Lionel seems to drown. That frankly would have viewers eyes rolling at the excessive look. One directing element that puzzled me was Norton's fondness of shooting things from a point-of-view where a character, usually if not always Lionel, is looking up at his attackers. This was done at least twice and it was for my tastes too "artistic" a choice.
In terms of performances it looks like Norton essentially let the actors figure it out for themselves. Baldwin in particular was surprisingly bad; judging by the film, he was directed to be perpetually angry and almost hysterically over-the-top as he could be. Same with Dafoe.
I'd say that Motherless Brooklyn's cast was more playing types than playing people. Trying to be actor, director and writer may have been one too many jobs for Norton, though to be fair I think he could master all three. Some did better than others: Mbatha-Raw came out of this the best, but some, like Leslie Mann as the Widow Minna or Bobby Cannavale as one of Minna's fellow gumshoes seemed to by reaching for parody and sadly achieving it.
As for Norton himself, despite being 50 he still maintains a youthful look and manner to him that makes Lionel come across as almost an innocent in this nefarious world. The Tourette's element doesn't come across as gimmicky, though curiously the voiceovers he does do.
It looks like Norton would have preferred to have adapted Robert Caro's biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, than the novel Motherless Brooklyn. At the very least, he seemed to willingly incorporate the battle between "Moses Randolph" and "Gabby Horowitz" (the Jane Jacobs substitute). The film should get points knocked down for "Moses Randolph".
The odd thing is that those who do know of Robert Moses may not be able to see Motherless Brooklyn as anything other than a de facto Moses biopic. Those who don't know won't find the machinations of "Moses Randolph" all that interesting, let alone the heart of this noir-like exploration of the seamy side of The Big Apple.
Motherless Brooklyn has great elements, but the whole really is less than the sum of its parts, or perhaps I should say "wholly Moses".