Motherless Brooklyn (film)

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Motherless Brooklyn
Motherless Brooklyn (film).jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byEdward Norton
Produced by
  • Edward Norton
  • Bill Migliore
  • Gigi Pritzker
  • Rachel Shane
  • Michael Bederman
Screenplay byEdward Norton
Based onMotherless Brooklyn
by Jonathan Lethem
Music byDaniel Pemberton
CinematographyDick Pope
Edited byJoe Klotz
Distributed byWarner Bros. Pictures
Release date
  • August 30, 2019 (2019-08-30) (Telluride)
  • November 1, 2019 (2019-11-01) (United States)
Running time
144 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$26 million[2]
Box office$18.1 million[3]

Motherless Brooklyn is a 2019 American neo-noir crime film written, produced and directed by Edward Norton, based on the 1999 novel of the same name by Jonathan Lethem. Set in New York City in 1957, the film follows a private investigator with Tourette syndrome, who is determined to solve the murder of his mentor. Along with Norton, the film also stars Bruce Willis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones, Alec Baldwin and Willem Dafoe.

A passion project of Norton's ever since he read Lethem's novel in 1999, the film took nearly 20 years to go into production. Although the book is set in contemporary times, Norton felt the plot and dialogue lent themselves more to a noir setting — moving it to the 1950s, with many added plot points inspired by The Power Broker. Other members of the cast joined by February 2018, and principal photography began that same month.

The film had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival on August 30, 2019, and was released in the United States on November 1, 2019, by Warner Bros. Pictures. It received mixed reviews from critics, with praise for Norton's performance and the film's ideas, but criticism for its length, and was a box office failure, grossing $18 million on its $26 million budget. At the 77th Golden Globe Awards, the film received a nomination for Best Original Score.


In 1950s New York City, Lionel Essrog works at a detective agency alongside Gilbert Coney, Danny Fantl, and Tony Vermonte. Their boss, Frank Minna, rescued them as children from an abusive orphanage. Nicknamed "Motherless Brooklyn" by Frank, Lionel has Tourette syndrome, often alienating him from people, but his photographic memory makes him a good detective.

Working a secret case, Frank asks Lionel and Gilbert to shadow him to a meeting. Lionel listens over the phone as Frank presents documents that threaten a business deal for William Lieberman, Lou, and their extremely large henchman. When Frank tries to negotiate a high price, the men force him to take them to the originals. Lionel and Gilbert follow in their car, arriving just as Frank is shot. They take him to the hospital, but Frank dies.

Frank's widow Julia leaves Tony in charge of the office. Lionel begins wearing Frank's hat and coat, and a matchbox in Frank's pocket leads Lionel to an African-American owned jazz bar in Harlem. He realizes that Frank's findings involve Laura Rose, who works for Gabby Horowitz fighting urban renewal; poor and minority neighborhoods are being bought out and demolished, forcing out their residents. Lionel goes to a public meeting where Moses Randolph, a commissioner of several development authorities, is accosted. Stealing a reporter's credentials, Lionel talks to Paul - who rages against Moses at the meeting.

Under the guise of reporting on the urban renewal story, Lionel gets to know Laura. She takes him to a club Frank was investigating, where her father Billy - assuming Lionel is one of Moses' men - has him beaten unconscious. Lionel is rescued by a trumpet player, and discovers that Paul is Moses' brother and an engineer. He realizes Lieberman is receiving kickbacks on many of the housing deals, and that the housing relocation programs are scams. Paul presents Moses with a huge renovation plan to improve the city.

Billy calls Lionel, apologizing for the attack and offering to meet with information. However, Lionel arrives to find Billy murdered - his death staged as a suicide. Staying the night with a distraught Laura at her house, Lionel admits his true identity and that he believes she is in danger. Finding photos of Paul meeting with Billy on his own, Lionel confronts Laura, who explains that her "Uncle" Paul is her real father. Paul denies this to Lionel, and explains that Frank and Billy planned to get more money out of Randolph's goons, against Paul's protests. He begs Lionel to find the evidence.

Lionel is brought to Moses, who invites him to join his team and stop snooping, with 24 hours to decide. Inside Frank's hat, Lionel finds the key to a Pennsylvania Station storage locker, containing a property deed and Laura's birth certificate, which reveals Moses is her father. Lionel gives the key to Paul and runs into Tony, who has been working surveillance for Randolph. Tony admits he has been sleeping with Julia, and tells Lionel to take Moses’ deal since Laura will soon be killed. Lionel races to save Laura, stopping her before she enters her apartment, and they flee. Laura knocks the large henchman off the fire escape, and Lou corners them with a gun but is hit in the with head with a trumpet by the trumpet player, who drives Laura out of town.

Lionel meets Moses, who reveals that he raped Laura's mother, one of his employees; Paul signed the birth certificate instead, but exposure of this secret threatened Moses. Lionel warns Moses to leave Laura alone or he will release the information. He informs Moses that Lieberman is on the take, and asks that when Moses has Lieberman killed, to tell him it is for Frank. Moses tells Lionel to tell Paul that his incredible plans for the city will proceed.

The next day, Moses denies Paul's plans out of spite, while Lionel mails the information to the reporter whose credentials he stole. Lionel drives to the property Frank left him in the deed, where Laura is waiting for him; as they sit together she begins to rub his back, in the manner Lionel previously explained in his narration that his mother would to help calm his frantic thinking.



After making the 1998 film American History X, Edward Norton acquired the rights to adapt Jonathan Lethem's novel Motherless Brooklyn.[2] In October 1999, it was announced that Norton would star in and produce the film.[4] He was uncertain as to whether he would direct the film.[5] Although the novel takes place in a modern 1999 setting, Norton rewrote the story for the 1950s, because the "characters are written in a very 1950s hardboiled detective style ... and if we try to make a film about the '90s in Brooklyn with guys acting like '50s gumshoes, it will feel ironic."[2] He also added the character Moses Randolph to the story, who is based on the New York City city planner, Robert Moses.[6][7] In 2012, Norton finished writing the script.[8] He imagined shopping the film to directors such as Bennett Miller, Paul Thomas Anderson, and David Fincher.[9] Toby Emmerich encouraged Norton to direct the film himself.[9] In February 2014, the project was set, with Norton directing.[10]

Production commenced in February 2018 in New York City, with Norton, Willem Dafoe, Bruce Willis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Alec Baldwin, among others, set to star.[11][12] Bobby Cannavale and Dallas Roberts joined the cast a few weeks later.[13] On March 22, 2018, a fire broke out in the cellar of the Harlem building where production was taking place, beneath the film's set.[14] The resulting blaze killed FDNY Firefighter (posthumously promoted to Lieutenant) Michael R. Davidson of Engine 69.[15] Production was temporarily suspended the next day, and was resumed a week later.[16][17] Several lawsuits were filed in the aftermath of the blaze, among others,[18][19] by Michal R. Davidson's widow against Norton's production company Class 5 Films for the wrongful death of her husband,[20] and by Class 5 Films against the building's landlord.[21]

Additional filming took place in December 2018 in Troy, New York.[22] It took 46 days to shoot the entire film.[23] The film was shot by Dick Pope and edited by Joe Klotz.[24] Visual effects were used for the scene in Pennsylvania Station, which was demolished in 1963.[25]


Norton e-mailed Radiohead singer Thom Yorke asking him to write a song for the film.[26] 2 weeks later, Yorke emailed him a song, "Daily Battles".[26] Yorke's Atoms for Peace bandmate Flea contributed bass and horns.[26] Norton enlisted jazz musician Wynton Marsalis to rearrange the song as a ballad reminiscent of 1950s Miles Davis.[26] Pianist Isaiah J. Thompson, bassist Russell Hall, saxophonist Jerry Weldon, and drummer Joe Farnsworth were recruited to complete Marsalis' version of the song.[27] Both versions were used in the film,[28] and were released on streaming services on August 21, 2019, and as a vinyl single on October 4, 2019.[29]

Norton mentioned to composer Daniel Pemberton that he loved Vangelis' music for the film Chariots of Fire, "specifically because of its simple classical piano under this synth thing."[30] Pemberton replied that the first piece of musical equipment he ever bought was the Yamaha CS-80 synthesizer, which was used by Vangelis for that film.[30] He wrote the score for Motherless Brooklyn in less than 4 weeks and produced it in less than 2 weeks.[30] He recorded it at Abbey Road Studios in 3 days.[31]


Motherless Brooklyn had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival on August 30, 2019.[32] It also screened at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival,[33] the 2019 Vancouver International Film Festival,[34] the 2019 New York Film Festival,[35] the 2019 Mill Valley Film Festival,[36] the 2019 Chicago International Film Festival,[37] the 2019 Rome Film Festival,[38] the 2019 San Diego International Film Festival,[39] and the 2019 Haifa International Film Festival.[40] It was released in the United States on November 1, 2019.[41]


Box office[edit]

Motherless Brooklyn grossed $9.3 million in the United States and Canada, and $8.8 million in other territories, for a worldwide total of $18.1 million.[3]

In the United States and Canada, the film was released alongside Terminator: Dark Fate, Harriet and Arctic Dogs, and was projected to gross $5–9 million in its opening weekend.[42] It made $1.1 million on its first day and went on to underperform, making $3.5 million over the weekend and finishing ninth.[43]

Critical response[edit]

On review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 63% based on 194 reviews with an average rating of 6.25/10. The website's critics consensus reads: "Motherless Brooklyn's imposing length requires patience, but strong performances and a unique perspective make this a mystery worth investigating."[44] Metacritic assigned the film a weighted average score of 60 out of 100, based on 36 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".[45] Audiences polled by PostTrak gave the film an overall positive score of 76% (including an average 3.5 out of 5 stars), while 46% said they would definitely recommend it.[43]

Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian gave the film 3 out of 5 stars, writing, "It's a heavy meal to digest, but this is a strong, vehement film with a real sense of time and place."[46] A. O. Scott of The New York Times called it "a very smart movie, bristling with ideas about history, politics, art and urban planning."[47] Matt Zoller Seitz of gave the film 3 out of 4 stars, praising "the unabashedly political nature of the project."[48] Eric Kohn of IndieWire gave the film a grade of B−, commenting that the film "at least does justice to its source material by transforming the plight of urban development into an immersive shaggy dog story."[49] Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave the film 4 out of 5 stars, writing, "it's Norton's own performance that brings emotional connection to Motherless Brooklyn."[50] Peter Debruge of Variety commented that "Lionel represents both an enormous new challenge and an incredibly unique variation on the otherwise worn-out private eye archetype."[51]

Chris Tilly of IGN gave the film a 6.6 out of 10, writing, "The film has much to say about discrimination and inequality, but while the central detective story is intriguing, the movie all-too-often gets sidetracked down narrative cul de sacs, giving the 144-minute film serious pacing issues, and making it a frequently frustrating watch."[52] Jake Cole of Slant Magazine gave the film 1.5 out of 4 stars, writing, "Motherless Brooklyn feels altogether too tidy, a film that revives many of the touchstones of noir, but never that throbbing unease that courses through the classics of the genre."[53] Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter called the film "stylishly made, politically driven, musically arresting, narratively confusing and, at nearly two-and-a-half hours, far too long."[54]


Award Date of ceremony Category Recipient(s) Result Ref(s)
Camerimage November 16, 2019 Best Cinematography Dick Pope Nominated [55][56]
Golden Globe Awards January 5, 2020 Best Original Score Daniel Pemberton Nominated [57]
Hollywood Music in Media Awards November 20, 2019 Best Original Score – Feature Film Daniel Pemberton Nominated [58]
Best Original Song – Feature Film "Daily Battles" by Thom Yorke and Flea Nominated
Satellite Awards December 19, 2019 Auteur Award Edward Norton Won [59]
Best Adapted Screenplay Edward Norton Nominated
Best Cinematography Dick Pope Nominated
Best Art Direction and Production Design Michael Ahern, Beth Mickle Won
Visual Effects Society Awards January 29 2020 Outstanding Created Environment in a Photoreal Feature John Bair, Vance Miller, Sebastian Romero, Steve Sullivan ("for Penn Station") Pending [60]


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External links[edit]