For nearly two decades, Edward Norton has been trying to realize his passion project — a film version of Jonathan Lethem’s landmark 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn. Now the film is here, sporting a few signs of artistic struggle, but nonetheless an ardent and ambitious triumph for writer-producer-director-star Norton. You might think multi-hyphenate Norton would err on the side of hat-in-hand faithfulness in adapting Lethem’s bestseller about an unlikely New York private detective with Tourette syndrome. Not the case. Norton has moved the novel’s 1990s setting backwards to 1957 (yup, the year of that seedy masterwork Sweet Smell of Success), splashing his film noir with period details that may throw Lethem fanatics. No need. The spirit, if not the letter of the novel, is in the bones of this film version.
Norton brings all his considerable talents to the role of Lionel Essrog, a rebel gumshoe plagued with involuntary tics that cause him to blink, jerk his head, and blurt out words he doesn’t intend to say, like tits. “It makes me say funny things, but I’m not trying to be funny,” Lionel explains. This leads to him being underestimated by strangers who have no idea about his photographic memory or how expert his mind is at untangling the puzzles the world puts before him.
Speaking of tangles, Motherless Brooklyn certainly qualifies. What drives the plot is the murder of Frank Minna (Bruce Willis in a sharply affecting cameo), a mentor to the lonely outlier he dubs “Motherless Brooklyn.” Frank’s wife (Leslie Mann) leaves his shady detective agency in the hands of his henchmen, Tony (Bobby Cannavale), Gil (Ethan Suplee) and Danny (Dallas Roberts). But it’s up to Lionel, who his cronies call “Freakshow,” to find out who killed Frank and why.
Frank’s previous mention of “a colored girl” steers Lionel to Laura Rose (a terrific Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a black community lawyer and activist who lives above a Harlem nightclub — cue the evocative jazz score from Daniel Pemberton) — and spends her days taking on city bigwigs, such as Moses Randolph, a thinly disguised name for polarizing New York master builder Robert Moses. Alec Baldwin plays Moses with a sophisticated smoothness that fails to disguise the inherent racism of a Trump-like character who pushed away minorities to achieve his elitist vision of a modern Gotham.
The Chinatown vibe is purely intentional on the part of Norton, in his first directing stint since his 2000 debut with the light-comic Keeping the Faith. Norton serves as his own master builder on Motherless Brooklyn and the production values, from the evocative light-and-shadow cinematography of Dick Pope (Mr. Turner) and the fluid editing of Joe Klotz, are top-tier. His work with other actors is equally exemplary — watch the magic Willem Dafoe manifests in a role best kept unspoiled.
Still, it’s Norton’s own performance that brings emotional connection to Motherless Brooklyn. Always a consummate actor, with Oscar nominations for Primal Fear, American History X and Birdman — he deserved another for Fight Club — Norton is at his very best as Lionel, seeing beyond the tics to the things that make him human. Norton the filmmaker has put Norton the actor through the ringer so that we see everything that transpires through Lionel’s eyes, working out the mystery as he works it out. For some viewers, this makes the plot too convoluted by half. Screw that. Go with the challenge and Motherless Brooklyn offers a home to the striving mind and heart.