Edward Norton spent twenty years trying to bring Jonathan Lethem’s bestselling novel “Motherless Brooklyn” to the big screen. Lethem set his detective story in the 1990s but Norton takes liberties, adding new characters and moving the action to the 1950s, lending a retro “Chinatown” vibe to the proceedings.
Norton, wrote, produced, directed and also stars as Lionel Essrog, a gumshoe with Tourette syndrome and an obsessive-compulsive eye for the little details that solve cases. “It’s like I got glass in my brain,” he says. When Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), his mentor and only friend, is killed while investigating a case no one is surprised. His colleagues, Tony (Bobby Cannavale), Gilbert (Ethan Suplee) and Danny (Dallas Roberts), accept that death is an almost inevitable part of the job but Lionel thinks there is more to the story. He is convinced Frank was about to blow the lid off a conspiracy involving Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), a ruthless politician who clears out African American communities to make way for redevelopment. “There’s something going down,” says Lionel, “and it’s big, and they were not happy about what he found.” His sleuthing leads him to Randolph’s hinky brother (Willem Dafoe), community activist Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and a tale of corruption, lust and power where everyone is at risk.
Norton has created a detailed noir with “Motherless Brooklyn” that, while engaging, overstays its welcome in a long, drawn out conclusion. Terrific performances (there is some capitol A acting happening here), effective dialogue and anxiety-inducing music plus great 1950s era flourishes (even if Baldwin does smoke a recent vintage American Spirit cigarette in closeup) entertain the eyes and ears but as Lionel uncovers clues we are drawn further into a rabbit hole of murky motives, many of which are left dangling by the time the end credits roll. It’s an ambitious movie that feels meandering and overstuffed with plot.
It does, however, have its high notes. Norton is careful in his portrayal of a person with Tourettes and while he may have an extreme case of the syndrome it is never used as a gag or a gimmick. Instead it’s a sympathetic representation of a person with neurological tics making his way through life.
As for Baldwin, it’s hard to not see echoes of his Donald Trump impression in Moses Randolph. He’s an aggressive anything-to-win type who plays the power game to the disadvantage of anyone who gets in his way. It’s a big, blustery performance and one of the film’s pleasures.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw brings both vulnerability and steel to Laura, elevating her from a plot device to a living, breathing character.
“Motherless Brooklyn” is frustrating. It contains many interesting, thought provoking ideas on gentrification, some nicely rendered scenes and fine acting but errs on the side of self-indulgence to the point where the audience loses interest in its machinations.