Motherless Brooklyn Parent Guide
A beautiful soundtrack and film noir plot riddled with excessive amounts of profanity.
Parent Movie Review
Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) is a veteran private eye in New York, but his latest case is more than he bargained for. When he is shot and killed trying to unravel a mystery, the case falls to Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton), one of his assistants. Lionel suffers from Tourette Syndrome and his verbal tics and outbursts have hampered his involvement in cases in the past. But with no one else wiling to get involved, he struggles with the challenges posed by his condition to avenge his friend’s death. Confronted by the mysterious Borough Authority, and its head, Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), Lionel has a steep hill to climb, both to discover his partner’s killer and to protect a young woman, Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who is more deeply involved in the case than anyone…
In most aspects, this is a pretty conventional neo-noir thriller. Set in the early 1950’s, characters skulk around in the pooling orange light of streetlamps, slip into seedy jazz clubs in Harlem, and dramatically walk down rain-drenched streets with iconic New York landmarks floating hazily in the background. What more could you ask for?
Where it diverges is its hero, Lionel Essrog. Watching the trailer, I was nervous about how his character would come off: Movies have not always handled the neurodivergent well. But Motherless Brooklyn makes it clear that despite the twitches and shouts, Lionel is probably the smartest person in any room he’s in, and wily enough to make use of it. This isn’t Rain Man meets Chinatown; it’s a personal and introspective look at a brilliant and courageous man who struggles with a condition that continually disrupts his work.
Aside from the strong casting and cinematography, what stood out most to me was the score, which is beautifully jazzy and runs through almost the entire movie. Slipping in and out of diegesis, the horns and snares are wonderfully moody.
But in all things there are downsides, and for Motherless Brooklyn, it’s the runtime – nearly two and a half hours. There’s almost no way to justify a film that length (unless you’re Lord of the Rings), and the film does feel a little slow. Personally, I liked the laid-back pace, which made the film feel like a pleasant walk through the mean streets of Brooklyn rather than an all-out sprint. The other catch is the profanity which, I believe, averages about one f-bomb every two minutes or so. That’s a lot, even for me, and most parents will consider it excessive.
So while this movie isn’t likely to enter the canon of neo-noir classics, it’s a fun trip down that road for adult fans of dark detective stories. There are better examples of the genre, sure, but this is probably worth a watch just for the music, if you can stand the profanity. Unless you don’t like jazz or detective movies, in which case it’s more of a three hour death march with saxophones.Directed by Edward Norton. Starring Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Running time: 144 minutes. Theatrical release November 1, 2019. Updated January 30, 2020
Watch the trailer for Motherless Brooklyn
Rating & Content Info
Why is Motherless Brooklyn rated R? Motherless Brooklyn is rated R by the MPAA for language throughout including some sexual references, brief drug use, and violence
Violence: Two people are shot. An individual is beaten up, with fists, clubs, and feet. A person is scalded with boiling water. Someone falls to their death from a fire escape.
Sexual Content: There is a non-descriptive reference to rape. There are occasional crude sexual references, which are non-explicit, including mention of a menage-a-trois.
Profanity: There are 67 uses of extreme profanity, 35 uses of a scatological term, and frequent use of terms of deity.
Alcohol / Drug Use: Adult characters are shown drinking socially. The protagonist smokes marijuana to control his Tourette syndrome, with limited success.
Page last updated January 30, 2020
Motherless Brooklyn Parents' Guide
Moses Randolph is based on Robert Moses, a city planner for New York who famously consolidated power in his office and tore down entire communities for the development of other projects. What was the cost of those demolitions? What kind of civic works would justify forcibly relocating so many citizens? Do you think the principle of eminent domain is reasonable?
Learn more about Robert Moses:
Wikipedia: Robert Moses
New York Daily News: Robert Moses’ name should be mud
New York Times: Why Robert Moses Keeps Rising from an Unquiet Grave