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Movie Review

Lionel Essrog didn’t have a name for it then, though now we’d call what ailed him Tourette’s syndrome. He’d shout inappropriate things at inappropriate times. He’d repeat the same words again and again until they sounded just right. He was, sometimes, just a massive ball of twitches and tics.

But underneath those involuntary tics ticked a first-class mind. He might blurt out embarrassing things, but he remembered everything—often including details that other people wouldn’t even have noticed the first time.

Not many people could see Lionel’s talents. But Frank could. From the time they were boys in a New York Catholic orphanage, Frank looked out for the kid. And when Frank started his own detective business, he gave Lionel a job. In fact, he gave lots of his old pals jobs: They went to school together, to World War II together, and now they make a living together, sniffing out adulterers and ferreting out insurance scams. Yeah, Frank had a soft heart for his friends and an endearing knack for understanding their talents.

But Frank had a knack for trouble, too. And trouble, in this biz, has a funny way of multiplying.

Frank was working on something big. Lionel could see that. But though his boss seems as cool as ever to most folks, Lionel notices an extra tightness in him, an uncharacteristic twitchiness. Still, Lionel follows orders. And when Frank tells Lionel and a big marshmallow of a man named Gilbert to wait outside for him while he meets with some gents in a nondescript flat, they wait outside obediently—prepared to go in if they need to.

But something happens. Next time Lionel sees Frank, he’s getting muscled into a car by a couple of goons. Lionel and Gilbert follow, but by the time both cars stop—near an isolated alley—it’s too late. Lionel hears shots fires, and sees the thugs aim a few more at him. When the bad guys finally flee, Frank’s lying by a pair of trashcans, bleeding something awful.

They take Frank to the hospital, but he never makes it out.

The boss is dead. And while all of Frank’s employees thought the world of the guy, not all of them want to find out who killed him. Why, they just might wind up just like him.

But Lionel won’t let it go. Just as his brain needs to hear an apartment door close just so, so it needs answers, too. And Lionel won’t stop until he gets them—no matter how far he has to climb to find them.

Positive Elements

Motherless Brooklyn plunges us into the underbelly of New York City politics and sinks deeply into its sins. But we do meet some good people along the way.

Lionel finds two of them, in fact—though one doesn’t live very long. Frank, in Lionel’s eyes, is maybe just a step below sainthood. Sure, he’s a cagey businessman, but he knew the business well, and he taught Lionel everything there was to know. Moreover, Frank knew Lionel, too—liked and appreciated him more than maybe even Lionel did himself. Frank protected Lionel as a kid and kept doing so for decades as an adult. And while some of Lionel’s other workmates called him “Freakshow,” Frank called him “Brooklyn.” And when there was an important job to do, Frank put Lionel on point.

Lionel also meets Laura Rose, a “colored” girl (in the parlance of the day) who’s trying to save a massive swath of Brooklyn from being demolished for an equally massive new transportation system. Powerful city planner Moses Randolph says they’re just clearing out slums. Laura, along with activist Gabby Horowitz, knows better. “A neighborhood is not a slum just because the poor and minorities live there,” Gabby tells Moses during a meeting. But while Gabby makes the speeches, Laura does the legwork. She goes door to door to talk with impacted residents, as well as doing research and being a tireless advocate for folks whom Moses and the city would rather just bulldoze away.

Lionel is drawn to Laura Rose because of her idealism and heart. He tells her, explicitly, that she is a good person, the sort of person the city has far too few of.

And then, of course, there’s Lionel himself. Without Frank around, he’s forced to do the thing he’s worst at to find Frank’s killers: talk to people. His Tourette’s makes that sort of face-to-face interaction awkward at the very least, impossible at worst. But his dogged desire to find answers to this tragic mystery overcome his fear and insecurities.

Spiritual Content

Lionel tells us about the time he spent in the Catholic orphanage—how the nuns there thought his condition was a sign he wasn’t right with God. But Frank tells Lionel (as Lionel tells us) that anyone who’s “teaching God’s love while hitting you with a stick shouldn’t be trusted.” The nuns—one in particular—tried to beat the Tourette’s out of Lionel, we’re told. But that stopped when a young Frank ripped the stick out of that nun’s hand and threatened to beat her twice as badly if she didn’t stop.

When a bevy of New York commissioners are officially endowed with their titles, their swearing-in ceremony concludes, “So help me God.” Someone says, “God bless you.” We hear that someone in Frank’s private eye business is investigating a Rabbi’s wife, who’s reportedly sleeping with a “not kosher” butcher.

Sexual Content

Lionel and Laura fall into a curious romance. They dance in a jazz club, and when Lionel’s Tourette’s makes the dancing difficult, Laura rubs the back of Lionel’s neck to calm him. They hold hands, too—and eventually, they sleep together, though sleep is really the operative word. Nothing sexual happens, but it suggests the growing intimacy between the two: When Laura tells Lionel that he talks in his sleep, he’s surprised—admitting to her that while he’s “been” with other women before, the relationships weren’t the type where the women drifted comfortably off to sleep afterward.

Frank’s wife seem less than traumatized when she learns of Frank’s death. That might be because later, we learn that she’s been sleeping with someone else. We hear a character’s account of graphic, repeated sexual assaults perpetrated by a powerful man against a powerless woman.

There are indications that a couple of Lionel’s workmates may have same-sex attraction. Gilbert reads a wrestling magazine (depicting shirtless, muscled guys) while waiting for Frank. (Lionel’s under the influence of his Tourette’s syndrome at that moment, and he suggestively spits that Gilbert will be looking for “Coney hot dogs” by the weekend.) Another coworker speaks rather effeminately, and someone lightly makes fun of his “limp wrist.” But he’s also married, apparently, and longs to go home to his wife.

A jazz musician may be bisexual: He makes a crude, perhaps joking, reference, to interracial oral sex with other guys; he and Lionel have a brief exchange suggesting that it shouldn’t matter who folks have sex with. The musician takes Lionel home with him, but apparently Lionel just sleeps on the couch. When Lionel wakes up, he sees the musician and his female guest—the latter wearing silky pajamas while making eyes at Lionel.

Several women—some of whom are dressed somewhat provocatively—display a bit level of interest in Lionel. An illegitimate child is a part of the mystery that Lionel’s trying to solve. The Tourette’s part of Lionel’s brain suggests that he kisses someone’s face “all night long,” one of several inappropriate remarks he fires off periodically. We hear lots of crass conversations.

Violent Content

Frank’s death is a bloody one. We see his white shirt stained red, and both he and Lionel’s hands are eventually covered in blood. (Lionel’s own bloody hand leaves stains on the walls and doors he touches.)

A man falls to his death after being hit on the head with a flowerpot. We see the fall and the bloody landing. Lionel finds someone who’s been shot in the heart—reportedly a suicide, but Lionel knows better. The bloodied body sits slumped in a chair.

Lionel gets into a fight with someone, eventually rendering his assailant temporarily harmless with a restaurant sugar dispenser. Lionel’s beaten up a couple of times elsewhere, too, and once knocked unconscious when someone stomps on his face. (He bears the scars of the confrontation for the rest of the movie, as does someone else who was roughed up.)

A guy is shot in the foot. Someone is cold-cocked with a trumpet. Guns get brandished, and threats are made. War stories are unspooled briefly, and we hear about how someone came back with serious injuries.

Crude or Profane Language

About 65 f-words and another 25 s-words. We also hear pretty much every other vulgarity you can think of: “a--,” “b--ch,” “d--n,” “h---,” “d--k,” “p-ss,” “f-g,” “crap” and “t-t” (and variations thereof). God’s name is misused at least a half-dozen times, including four with “d--n”; Jesus’ name is abused more than a dozen times.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Two things help Lionel control his Tourette’s: chewing gum and marijuana. He says the latter helps control his tics and enables him to sleep, but he does admit that it also clouds his brain. He longs for the days when his mother rubbing his neck could soothe him, and he didn’t need the stuff. Regardless, Lionel smokes joints repeatedly on camera. After Lionel gets beat up, the jazz musician gives him a pipe that he says is “no ordinary” marijuana. (It’s implied that whatever it was knocks Lionel out. He wakes up on the musician’s couch with no memory of how he got there.)

Lots of other people smoke here, too—mostly cigarettes, though one character favors cigars. Lionel and others drink whiskey, wine and other alcoholic beverages.

Other Negative Elements

Political scandal lies at the heart of Motherless Brooklyn, so we witness a great deal of lying and wrongdoing associated with that. In addition, Lionel masquerades as a newspaper reporter for a good chunk of the movie. That enables him to extract information from others he might not have gotten otherwise; he even steals another reporter’s press credentials.

We see racism and hear people make racist statements.


Motherless Brooklyn aspires to be a retro-noir thriller along the lines of 1974’s Chinatown; its awards-bait aspirations are impossible to miss. But just as happens with Lionel, sometimes the movie’s own idiosyncratic tics get in the way.

The atmosphere feels about right, what with its jazz clubs and fedoras and the city’s cold, old streets. The story brings some cultural buzz to the party as well, pitting “progress” against the good people who stand in the way of it. It adds some racial bigotry and tension, and it makes a feint toward the kind of horrific sexual aggression that spawned the #MeToo movement.

But unlike the pieces of Motherless Brooklyn’s central mystery, the movie’s pieces don’t quite add up to a whole here. And some of the pieces just make this picture hard to swallow.

Admittedly, the content isn’t terribly extreme here—not for an R-rated movie. The violence and blood is intense, but not gratuitous. There’s no nudity, and the core romance is almost chaste. But the graphic verbal allusions to sexual content paired with this film’s unrelenting profanity spreads excess grime on what was already a grimy story of corruption and power. And the film doesn’t offer enough payoff to warrant sitting through it all.

While Casablanca (a film that also has a certain noir-ish vibe to it) suggested that the problems of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world, Motherless Brooklyn suggests those little people are important. Maybe more important than all the bridges and brownstones in Brooklyn.

It’s a nice message as far as it goes. Just wish it was in a nicer movie.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

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Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range



Edward Norton as Lionel Essrog; Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Laura Rose; Alec Baldwin as Moses Randolph; Bobby Cannavale as Tony Vermonte; Willem Dafoe as Paul; Bruce Willis as Frank Minna; Ethan Suplee as Gilbert Coney; Cherry Jones as Gabby Horowitz; Dallas Roberts as Danny Fantl; Josh Pais as William Lieberman


Edward Norton ( )


Warner Bros.



Record Label



In Theaters

November 1, 2019

On Video

Year Published



Paul Asay

Content Caution

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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