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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Motherless Brooklyn is a noir crime drama set in 1950s New York that's based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem. It follows a private investigator (Edward Norton, who also directs) who has Tourette syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Lionel is called "freak show" by his friends for his neurological tics, which cause his body to jerk or uncontrollably shout word clusters, many of which are profane. Lionel isn't alone in swearing: Characters curse constantly, with "f--k" being the favorite word. It's rare to see a lead character who has Tourette syndrome, and while Lionel represents an extreme manifestation, the film facilitates a compassionate understanding for what it's like to live with the disorder. To calm his symptoms, Lionel smokes pot, and many characters smoke cigarettes (accurate for the era). Bloody violence comes from guns, beatings, and a long fall; a rape is discussed. Sexual content includes allusions to sexual activities and kissing. Upon the death of his friend and boss, Lionel's obsessive mind keeps "pulling on the thread" of curiosity to find out who killed his friend and why; in the pursuit of truth, he shows courage and perseverance. While the story is fiction, it's based on real instances of housing discrimination at the hands of the city government.
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What's the story?
In MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN, Lionel Essrop (Edward Norton, who also wrote and directed the film) is a lonely private detective with Tourette syndrome, which -- as depicted here -- means that he yells and twitches randomly. When his friend/mentor Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) is murdered, Lionel sets out to find out what happened, even though that means going up against the most powerful man in the city: Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin).
Is it any good?
You have to respect Norton's gumshoe tale for its sheer ambition, but he covers so much ground in such a distracting environment that it can be hard to follow. Norton spent 20 years adapting Jonathan Lethem's 1999 novel about a shady detective agency. He ended up moving the setting back four decades, but he kept the story's sweet hero, Lionel, virtually the same. Lionel has an unwavering loyalty for his band of brothers, the fellow orphans of the St. Vincent Home for Boys who became his family. And he has a special fondness for their leader, Frank, who took Lionel under his wing when he arrived at the facility. Minna didn't just look beyond Lionel's disorders -- he appreciated the unique way that Lionel's brain worked and helped him find a career that could make use of it. Hollywood hasn't been kind to those who have Tourette syndrome, too often making the neurological disorder a punchline. Motherless Brooklyn shows that the side effects of the condition are no joke and puts viewers in the position of real understanding for the daily difficulties that come with living with TS.
By going back in history, Norton also succeeds in helping viewers understand some of the issues in the news today, like eminent domain, unchecked government power, even how racism gets institutionalized. As Lionel tries to get answers to Frank's death, he realizes that his friend had made a discovery that was going to interfere with the plans of New York City planning division chief Randolph (who's loosely based on real-life NYC bigwig Robert Moses). Getting insight into how the strong-arm tactics used in New York City's development helped it become a modern city of enterprise is revelatory, but the "discoveries" are also where Motherless Brooklyn gets mucked up. The movie is hard to follow. Whether it's Lionel's involuntary tics making him seize up and blurt nonsensical words, the '50s slang and patter, or the artsiness of the production design and cinematography, there's too much going on in a complicated story. Norton has created a lovely film that provides understanding of condition, issues, and impacts in real life -- just not what Lionel pieces together in the fictional story.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Tourette syndrome. How is it depicted in Motherless Brooklyn compared to in other movies and TV shows you've seen? Why is it important to walk in someone else's shoes? Does this film make you feel sympathy, empathy, or compassion for Lionel? What's the difference in those feelings?
Talk about housing discrimination. What were the tactics used? Why is a move harder on people who struggle financially? Laws have been passed to prevent housing discrimination, but does it still exist today?
How are smoking, drinking, and drug use depicted in the film? Do you think substance use is glamorized?
- In theaters: November 1, 2019
- On DVD or streaming: January 28, 2020
- Cast: Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Alec Baldwin
- Director: Edward Norton
- Studio: Warner Bros.
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Book Characters, Friendship, Misfits and Underdogs
- Character strengths: Compassion, Courage, Curiosity, Perseverance
- Run time: 144 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: language throughout including some sexual references, brief drug use, and violence
- Last updated: July 16, 2020
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