‘Motherless Brooklyn’ reviews: Edward Norton’s mystery pays tribute to film noir, but is it the next ‘Chinatown’?

Motherless Brooklyn” opened on November 1 and it’s nothing if not a labor of love. Edward Norton stars in the period film as a private eye with Tourette syndrome investigating a political conspiracy in New York City. He also wrote the screenplay, produced it and directed it. It’s based on Jonathan Lethem‘s 1999 detective novel, but Norton transports the story back to the 1950s, hearkening back to an era of classic film noir. Does he pull it off?

As of this writing the film gets a MetaCritic score of 61 based on 29 reviews counted thus far: 18 positive, 9 mixed, 2 negative. On Rotten Tomatoes, which rates movies on a pass/fail basis as opposed to MetaCritic’s sliding scale, “Brooklyn” is rated 65% fresh based on 91 reviews: 59 fresh, 32 rotten. The RT critics’ consensus summarizes the reviews by saying, “‘Motherless Brooklyn’s’ imposing length requires patience, but strong performances and a unique perspective make this a mystery worth investigating.”

Critics who especially admire the film credit its “great acting,” particularly from Norton. His portrayal of the tics and outbursts of Tourette syndrome could have been gimmicky or even offensive, but “the gambit plays off” and “he executes it with aplomb.” “The Norton we know completely disappears … and then we’re immersed in the story.” But others “can’t help wishing it were better,” arguing that the movie is “ambitious” but “bumpy” and “overstuffed,” resembling the detective classic “Chinatown” “more in outline than in effect.”

Check out some of the reviews below, and join the discussion on this and more with your fellow movie fans in our forums.

Sasha Stone (The Wrap): “This is a film in service of a great novel by a director who knows how great that novel is. And two, this is a film about great acting by an actor who knows what makes acting great … Any effort to portray someone with Tourette syndrome risks coming off as blatantly bad, but here the gambit pays off. The Norton we know completely disappears, and then we’re watching the character, and then we’re immersed in the story.”

Katie Walsh (Chicago Tribune): “In the age of blockbuster superhero entertainment versus micro-budget indie films, Norton has delivered a movie of another era: a sturdy, wordy, politically minded and wholly engaging whodunit … Norton’s performance could be cartoonish, but he executes it with aplomb, the twitches and tics motivated and authentic to the character and his experience of the world.”

Justin Chang (Los Angeles Times): “‘Motherless Brooklyn’ is the kind of knotty, ambitious, character-rich, politically conscious entertainment the studios so rarely get behind anymore, you can’t help wishing it were better … It’s a bumpy ride, a mixed bag and a movie whose noir-flavored civics lesson owes a significant debt to ‘Chinatown,’ a classic it resembles more in outline than in effect.”

Moira Macdonald (Seattle Times): “It’s an overstuffed attempt at film noir, filled with beautifully photographed faces and nostalgic shots of New York. But perhaps Norton was too much in love with it all; as a movie, it’s just too much … ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ needed, perhaps, a little less love and a little more ruthlessness.”

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