Rating: (2.5 stars)
Edward Norton’s “Motherless Brooklyn” is nominally an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel of the same name. But this hard-boiled, richly atmospheric tale of urban manifest destiny and malfeasance owes at least as much to Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker.”
That book was about Robert Moses, the Machiavellian public figure whose vision and coldblooded ambition shaped much of modern-day New York. And if Moses isn’t a literal character in “Motherless Brooklyn,” he’s its chief bête noire in the form of Moses Randolph, played by Alec Baldwin in a performance that bears more than a whiff of his Donald Trump impersonation on “Saturday Night Live.” Shifting Lethem’s time frame from the 1990s to the 1950s and creating a period piece with sobering political resonance, Norton has done what every self-respecting filmmaker must do when tackling literature: Throw the book out and make your movie.
That movie turns out to be a stylish, thoughtful throwback — not to the 1990s or the 1950s, but the 1970s, when movies like “Chinatown” and “All the President’s Men” were made by studios instead of streaming entities. With its postwar cynicism, world-weary gumshoes and stench of civic corruption, “Motherless Brooklyn” most obviously tips its fedora to the first film, which still reigns supreme as a neo-noir classic. Norton, who wrote and directed “Motherless Brooklyn,” does his best to imitate the genre’s snappy dialogue and clever red herrings; but what starts out as a mystery as intelligent as it is intriguing winds up being over-plotted didactic.
If anything, “Motherless Brooklyn” is most valuable as a reminder of what a fine actor Norton is. Here he plays Lionel Essrog, a trusted factotum for a private detective named Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who as the film opens has enlisted Lionel to cover him during an important clandestine meeting. Things go sideways, and circumstances send Lionel on an odyssey through a New York of jazz clubs, modest brownstones and Randolph’s own office, where he oversees the development of the city like the pharaoh one character compares him to.
Shot by Dick Pope to resemble a dime store detective novel and scored with equal beauty and sensitivity by composer Daniel Pemberton, “Motherless Brooklyn” is a film of handsome surfaces and textures, and Norton has assembled a first-rate cast to populate a story that features a Jane Jacobs-like activist played by Cherry Jones, as well as Lionel’s fellow “Minna Men,” a motley crew — like Lionel, former orphans — played with bantering brio by Bobby Cannavale, Dallas Roberts and Ethan Suplee. But it’s Norton himself who delivers the standout performance in “Motherless Brooklyn,” in which he plays the kind of misfit-with-hidden-layers that brought him to fame in 1996’s “Primal Fear.” Lionel lives with Tourette’s syndrome, which means that he’s given to sudden facial tics, verbal stammers and inappropriate outbursts. If the idea of an Oscar-nominated actor playing someone with a disability sounds offensive, Norton successfully navigates that minefield by way of a performance that’s understated, thoughtful and, in one instance, deeply moving. While visiting a Harlem club one night, Lionel starts to commune with the bebop jazz being played, the random-seeming beats and sudden changes aligning perfectly with the scattershot rhythms of his own brain.
If “Motherless Brooklyn” could have stayed in that space, balancing its shaggy-dog story and social conscience a bit more economically, it might have been a home run. Instead, Norton packs in more characters — a hysterically pitched human billboard played by Willem Dafoe, and a gratuitous love interest played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw — and more plot twists that begin to feel increasingly contrived, talky and overdetermined. Still, the milieu and message of “Motherless Brooklyn” ring startlingly true, at a time when raw power, rank impunity and ruthless greed are as ascendant as ever. Past is still prologue, even when it’s pure pulp.
R. At area theaters. Contains strong language throughout, including some sexual references, brief drug use and violence. 144 minutes.