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"Exposing Corruption in 1957 New York City"

What You Need To Know:

MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN is a complex but engaging mystery set in 1957 New York. Writer/Director Edward Norton plays Lionel, a detective with a photographic memory who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome. Lionel’s Tourette’s affliction gives him a nervous tick and causes him to utter bursts of obscenities and profanities. Lionel works for a detective agency run by his mentor and friend. When his mentor is shot dead by thugs, the clues lead to a corrupt city planner named Moses Randolph. Randolph’s using eminent domain to make way for city projects, at the expense of poor people, minorities and small homeowners.

MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN is too long and has an overly complicated plot. However, when Norton kicks things into high gear, his visual sense, crisp pacing and general sense of showmanship pay off. Also, the movie has a strong moral worldview supporting justice. That said, MOVIEGUIDE® advises extreme caution for the frequent foul language in MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN. The movie also has some bursts of violence, brief lewd content, and references to marijuana use and to Catholic nuns trying to beat the Tourette’s out of Lionel in school.


(BB, Ab, LLL, VV, S, A, DD, M):  

Dominant Worldview and Other Worldview Content/Elements:
 Strong moral worldview where hero with Tourette’s Syndrome tries to avenge the death of his friend and boss by solving his murder and bringing corrupt officials to justice, while keeping a female witness to the corruption safe from harm, with some Anti-Catholic elements involving a couple of verbal references to the protagonist having been physically beaten by nuns while growing up in a Catholic orphanage, as they tried to “beat” Tourette’s Syndrome and its attendant tics and use of foul language out of him;

Foul Language:
 About 129 obscenities (mostly “f” and “s” words, mostly because of protagonist’s speech disability), 18 strong profanities and five light profanities;

Plenty of strong violence in bursts includes man is kidnapped by mobsters, and a car chase ensues as his employees chase after the kidnap vehicle, man is shot off-camera, man’s body found with a very bloody shirt as he bleeds out and his hands covered in blood before he ultimately dies, a villain falls off a high fire escape and plummets to the pavement below as his blood is seen pouring out from a great distance, a villain is shot in the foot and has some blood pouring out briefly, another man is seen with several bullet holes with blood briefly visible, several physical combats and fistfights occur, with characters punched and kicked, a gunshot victim is wheeled into hospital where a bloody handprint on a door is shown, and one character wakes up with bruises, plus a discussion of rape;

Some allusions to sexual activity, a discussion of rape, and a man and woman are seen waking up holding each other while clothed, with the implication they slept together and are romantically involved;

  No nudity;

Alcohol Use:
 Casual drinking is seen throughout in bars, but the lead character drinks to help minimize his Tourette’s outbursts;

Smoking and/or Drug Use and Abuse:
  Smoking and lead character is seen smoking marijuana as a way to minimize his Tourette’s outbursts with the effects of the pot; and,

Miscellaneous Immorality:
  Corruption, but it’s exposed and rebuked, part of the plot involves housing discrimination and racism, blackmail occurs but it’s not endorsed, and some double-crosses occur.

More Detail:

MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN is the story of a detective with Tourette’s Syndrome in 1957 New York trying to solve the mystery behind the murder of his only friend and mentor. MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN is stylish and well-acted, and sometimes fun and engaging, with a strong moral worldview supporting justice, but it’s too long, the plot is a little too complicated, and it has some bursts of violence, frequent foul language because of the detective’s Tourette’s Syndrome, and a couple references to marijuana use and to Catholic nuns hitting the detective in Catholic school to beat the Tourette’s out of him.

The movie follows the story of a detective named Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton), who narrates the movie as he recounts the story of how he had to solve the murder of his only friend and mentor, Frank Minna, played by Bruce Willis. Frank owned a detective agency which employed Lionel. Frank was in the midst of investigating some shady business dealings of a corrupt city official named Moses Randolph, played Alec Baldwin. When Frank is abruptly shot dead by a group of thugs, he’s only able to whisper Randolph’s name to Lionel.

With that singular clue, Lionel starts to unravel an incredible conspiracy overseen by Randolph. Also, he must protect a young black woman who works in Randolph’s city department and knows details about his corruption. Randolph is using eminent domain to make way for city projects, at the expense of poor people, minorities and small homeowners, among other things.

At the same time, Moses Randolph’s brother, Paul (Willem Dafoe), is also trying to expose Randolph without getting destroyed in the process. Lionel finds the case growing ever more complicated and dangerous. He also has to contend with another major issue, the fact that he suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome, a condition that causes near-constant tics to occur and random bursts of profanities and obscenities to pour forth from his mouth at any time.

MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN has a great deal of style in the period visuals of its 1950s New York City setting, as well as in its terrific jazzy score by Daniel Pemberton. The score recalls the uniquely dissonant qualities of the notable score to 2014’s BIRDMAN.

Edward Norton serves not only as star here, but also as writer and director, adapting one of his favorite novels of the same name to the big screen in a passion project he’s hoped to make since reading it in 1999. His character, Lionel, is a very unique creation, at once lovable and inducing the audience to root for him as he battles incredibly tough circumstances such as his Tourette’s affliction.

Of course, the fact that he swears often in the movie as a result of the Tourette’s will make this a major problem for media-wise viewers. However, the context of the condition and the way in which Norton portrays it matter-of-factly lessens the offensiveness somewhat.

Norton’s cast is a delight to watch. Viewers are treated to several top-notch veteran actors dressed stylishly and having a great deal of fun in the process. The mystery drags out a little too long, though. The movie could have easily benefited from being about 15 to 20 minutes shorter. However, when Norton kicks things into high gear with the ace surveillance scene and car chase that kicks off the movie and another tense showdown with a giant brute, his visual sense, crisp pacing and general sense of showmanship pay off richly.

Overall, MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN is a fun, engaging crime drama and mystery that helps kick off the fall season where studios normally release their more dramatic, more classy fare. It works on those levels if viewers are willing and able to focus hard on the complex plot, but that focus will be richly rewarded. Nonetheless, the frequent use of strong foul language and some strong violence in MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN warrant extreme caution. Also, MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN contains some sexual references, and the lead character smokes marijuana to lessen the effects of his Tourette’s System.