Director/star Edward Norton’s decision to turn Jonathan Lethem’s postmodern neo-noir novel into a literal 1950s-set noir, with jazz music and vintage cars aplenty, is both an asset and a liability.
Motherless Brooklyn is easy on the eyes, and the all-star cast conveys the sense—if not the suspense—of a twisty-turny mystery populated by crooks, dames, reporters, jazz musicians, and an ultra-powerful tycoon inspired by infamous New York City developer Robert Moses. But the movie is overlong and unfocused, too, and there’s almost no emotional purchase, even as stakes escalate.
Norton’s detective has Tourette's syndrome, which is sometimes played for comic relief and sometimes disappears altogether—Norton is definitely showing off as much as possible, but his acting chops are also capable of holding an otherwise pretty shaggy movie together.
And while this reinvention of Motherless Brooklyn is probably not the movie Lethem diehards were hoping for, it should age nicely into a decent lazy Sunday watch on TV.