Set in 1950s New York, the film (based on a Jonathan Lethem novel of the same name) tells the story of Lionel (Norton), who works as an associate to a private detective (Bruce Willis). Lionel suffers from Tourette's Syndrome, which isolates him from most people. So when Willis is killed during a job, Lionel is devastated and seeks answers. He soon crosses paths with a community activist (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and a corrupt city commissioner (Alec Baldwin), among others.
At 144 minutes, Motherless Brooklyn could use some cutting. A subplot involving Willis' widow (Leslie Mann) could be excised from the film entirely. But most of the film works well, starting with Norton as the lead. He conveys the ways in which Lionel's illness would be off-putting to those around him while still making him feel like a real human being. Mbatha-Raw, Baldwin, and Willem Dafoe (as Baldwin's decidedly less powerful brother) give good performances in support. The costuming and set design vividly evokes a New York City of long ago.