You can’t doubt Edward Norton’s ambition. In “Motherless Brooklyn,” loosely adapted from the novel by Jonathan Lethem, he aims to do for New York what Roman Polanski did for Los Angeles in “Chinatown”—create an iconic tale of urban corruption in the form of a classic gumshoe thriller. His obvious labor of love is impressive and engrossing, even if, in the end, it doesn’t manage to match its model.
Norton has also provided a role for himself that hearkens back to his extraordinary debut in “Primal Fear” and reaffirms, after a rather prolonged career dip, his remarkable talent. He plays Lionel Essrog, a young man afflicted with Tourette Syndrome, whose facial tics and spontaneous verbal explosions set him apart. Norton’s ability to convey the physical aspects of the role demonstrates his versatility, but even more important is the refinement with which he deals with the character’s outbursts to keep them from becoming overly intrusive or irritating; he deploys them in a fashion that enhances Essrog’s charm rather than diminishing it.
Lionel’s protector and mentor is Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who’s given the orphan a spot on his team of underlings at a detective agency. When Frank is killed, Lionel takes it upon himself to track down the perpetrators.
Norton has taken this general plot trajectory—as well as Lionel’s background and condition—and moved the action from the nineties, when Lethem’s story was set, to the 1950s. He’s also woven it into a larger New York story, totally absent from the book—the extensive urban renewal of the time, which is portrayed as a major element of the official corruption that is integral to the ultimate explanation for Frank’s murder.
That explanation, however, has a personal side in the figure of Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), a fictionalized stand-in for New York’s master planner and re-maker Robert Moses, whose lust for power is depicted here as having more than one facet, and whose projects to modernize the city include a decidedly racist element that is never explicitly stated but undeniably present.
It would be tedious—as well as unfair and perhaps, given the script’s myriad not-always-clear byways, impossible—to catalogue the movie’s convolutions en route to a conclusion that might be termed a combination or cynicism (or realism) and bittersweet hopefulness. Suffice it to say that Lionel’s investigation—conducted in sometime collaboration with his three other office-mates—take-charge Tony (Bobby Canavale), sloppy Gil (Ethan Suplee) and dapper Danny (Dallas Roberts)—leads him to a scruffy critic of Randolph named Paul (Willem Dafoe), Randolph’s second-in-command Lieberman Josh Pais), and a beautiful woman named Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), whose father runs a Harlem jazz club and who is working with Gabby Horowitz (Cherry Jones), a neighborhood-preservationist, modeled after Jane Jacobs, who opposes Randolph’s renovation plans—as well as a bunch of nasty thugs who give him some unpleasant beatings.
Ultimately the reason behind Minna’s death is revealed, but you might be forgiven if you don’t fully understand each step along the way to its solution, or precisely how Lionel connects all the dots simply on the basis of his photographic memory, which focuses on the words that Frank was able to mutter to him before expiring. One might also be critical of the frequently jumpy, hectic editing by Wyatt Smith, which turns some sequences into hyperkinetic montages in which the barrage of current and remembered images makes it very difficult to piece things together.
Of course that’s part of the decision to structure the film as a reflection of what’s going inside within Lionel’s head, a process that he describes from time to time as having shards of broken glass stabbing his brain. The choice makes for untidy exposition, but one intended to build up cumulatively to enlightenment for both the character and the audience. Apart from those rather jumbled sequences and an opening car chase, the film is staged in a rather staid, almost solemn fashion, with near classic compositions.
It is also a model of period recreation. It must have been a horrendous chore to find and then link together different locations that could plausibly pass for the fifties and then fill them with the cars and properly attired actors and extras to make things visually convincing. Production designer Beth Mickle and costumer Amy Roth have done an estimable job, and Dick Pope adds to the impression with lustrous visuals that may not be in black-and-white, but mimic in color the use of light and shade for which film noir was famous. One should also mention Daniel Pemberton’s moody score, as well as the great riffs featured in the Harlem jazz scenes, which Norton and Smith understandably linger over despite the fact that they hold back the action (Wynton Marsalis actually played the trumpet solos that Michael Kenneth Williams supposedly performs on screen).
Norton has attracted some outstanding actors for the supporting roles. Willis is seen relatively briefly, but makes his few scenes count, and the same can be said of Baldwin, who not only captures Randolph’s sense of absolute authority but, by reason of his other current role, automatically causes one to think of Donald Trump as a present-day embodiment of that same attitude. Even more impressive is Dafoe, who draws an eye-catching portrait of a man trapped between principle and the need to compromise. Canavale, meanwhile, is appropriately sleazy as a guy on the make who will probably always fail, while Williams has real presence as a man who compares his musical talent to Lionel’s special gifts (or curses).
As with so many films nowadays, the opportunity for actress to shine is limited, but Mbatha-Raw is both beautiful and touching as Laura Rose, while Jones has a properly frazzled air as a woman tilting at windmills and Leslie Mann has fun as Minna’s hardbitten, no-nonsense widow.
“Motherless Brooklyn”—a title that’s explained in a snatch of dialogue rather late in the game—is an imperfect film, but its intelligence and craftsmanship are never in doubt.