Motherless Brooklyn

Dept. of Knowing Noirs


Motherless Brooklyn opens the way that almost all detective noir movies do. The main character – played by writer, director, and lead actor Edward Norton – sets the scene via narration. The place? New York City. The time? Nineteen fifty something. You hear jazz wafting in. It has all the cultural touchstones of the genre. So much so that even if you haven’t seen any such genre movies, you still recognise them all.

This, mind you, isn’t a knock on Motherless Brooklyn. In fact, it’s what makes it so damn appealing. And I for one loved every second of it. 

Edward Norton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Motherless Brooklyn

The movie opens with Edward Norton’s Lionel on a sting with his boss and mentor, Frank Minna, played by Bruce Willis. As the sting goes south, Lionel, a private investigator with Tourette’s and a photographic memory, spends the rest of the movie trying to solve a case involving corrupt government officials, slum lords, and racism, by doing what gumshoes do best, hitting the streets and talking to people.

Trust me when I tell you that this is a movie that is a lot more riveting than I just made it sound. Motherless Brooklyn knows how to do noir. Lionel’s narration never feels out of place or unwanted. This oldest of movie tropes is handled so well, and so delicately, that it never once trips into parody. Edward Norton, in writing the screenplay, moves it from a contemporary telling to 1950s New York, all while staying true to the characters and their stories.

With a stacked cast that includes Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bobby Canavale, Alec Baldwin, and Willem Dafoe, Motherless Brooklyn slips into the cool demeanour of a detective noir so comfortably that it makes it hard to believe that Jonathan Lethem’s original novel was actually set in the late 1990s.

Bruce Willis as Frank Minna in Motherless Brooklyn

In fact, my one gripe with Motherless Brooklyn is that I didn’t get enough of everyone involved.

From Leslie Mann’s turn as Frank Minna’s wife, to Cherry Jones, Robert Wisdom, Ethan Suplee, Dallas Roberts, and Michael K. Williams, many of the supporting characters end up making no more than cameo appearances. When you have that much talent on screen, you can’t help but want more.

Michael K Williams is the Trumpet Man in Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn is the detective story that I thought I’d get with HBO’s Perry Mason. Where Perry Mason felt like a gritty reboot of the genre, Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn leans into all of its tropes, giving us that jazz drenched, always overcast New York, and that fast talking wise guy New York private eye we’ve come to know and love. Now don’t get me wrong, I loved every second of Perry Mason. Motherless Brooklyn, however, was just the kind of throwback I was craving.


This is a movie that doesn’t try to redo, or ignore, or modernise the genre in any way. It embraces all of its motifs. It leans into all of its tropes. Whether or not that appeals to a 21st century audience is another matter.

Motherless Brooklyn never opened in cinemas here in Malaysia, but if you’re a fan of this kind of movie, then you should really give it a go. It might not be a classic, but it respects the form and delivers on a promise that I didn’t know I wanted.

Edward Norton is Lionel Essrog in Motherless Brooklyn

Also, while you’re at it, do yourself a favour and check out the soundtrack. The first single, Daily Battles, is written and performed by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, featuring The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea on both bass and trumpets. It’s a beautiful, haunting, dissonant piece of music that captures both the mood of the movie, and the character of Edward Norton’s Lionel.

Motherless Brooklyn is now streaming on HBO Go.

Motherless Brooklyn
144 minutes
Director: Edward Norton
Writer: Edward Norton
Cast: Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bobby Canavale, Cherry Jones, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, Michael K. Williams, Leslie Mann, Ethan Suplee, Dallas Roberts, Josh Pais, Robert Wisdom, and Fisher Stevens

Bahir likes to review movies because he can watch them at special screenings and not have to interact with large groups of people who may not agree with his idea of what a movie going experience is. Bahir likes jazz, documentaries, Ken Burns, and summer blockbuster movies. He really hopes that the HBO MAX Green Lantern series will help the character be cool again. Also don’t get him started on Jason Momoa’s Aquaman (#NotMyArthurCurry).

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