Edward Norton’s “Motherless Brooklyn” is a low-rent “Chinatown,” wonderfully evocative of a long-gone era when fedora-wearing gumshoes got caught up in other people’s passions.
This private eye is Lionel Essrog, (known as Brooklyn), an orphan detective with Tourette syndrome, or “the rumble life,” as he calls it. His brain is his blessing and curse. His memory “on point,” photographic even, but the “glass” in his cranium causes him to get all touchy, twitchy and twisted. He puts people off so he prefers behind-the-scenes snoop work like “sits” and stake-outs.
The plot springs to life when his beloved boss and mentor, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), is bleeding out on a hospital stretcher. His last breath is a death-bed whisper into Lionel’s ear, words that set the stage for a film-noir, complete with enigmatic beauties (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Leslie Mann) and bad guys in high (and low) places, all of them mixed up in a tangled web of political greed and corruption.
Taking his cue from Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 source material, Norton’s script reveals a solid grasp of story and character; his direction equally smooth and confident. Lending a hand are veteran cinematographer Dick Pope (the gorgeous “Mr. Turner”) and production designer Beth Mickle (“Drive”), both bringing 1950s New York to vivid life.
Norton also does the mother lode on screen, leading an all-star cast that includes Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, Bobby Cannavale, Ethan Suplee, Dallas Roberts and Michael Kenneth Williams. It’s a stacked deck and Norton certainly uses the supporting cast to his advantage in smoothing over occasional rough spots, especially when his script bogs down in plot points that elongate a runtime exceeding two hours.
As Lionel digs deeper into Frank’s last case he finds himself squaring off with the megalomaniacal Moses Randolph, the most powerful man in New York City. In a meta turn, Baldwin plays him with full-on Trumpian bluster and glee. Mbatha-Raw (“Belle”) is radiant and empathetic as the woman at the center of the mystery. Dafoe (“The Lighthouse”) can do crazed constituent in his sleep. Lionel’s posse at the seedy neighborhood detective agency (Cannavale, Suplee, Roberts) is all one-note, fading in and out as needed. It’s too bad, because their bantering and bickering spices things up.
More seasoned moviegoers will spot double-crosses and other clues that point toward the resolution, but the movie’s interest rests in watching Lionel suffer the crooks and killers without losing his sense of humor or basic goodness. Norton, a three-time Oscar nominee (“Birdman,” “Primal Fear,” “American History X”), affords Lionel a Jimmy Stewart-like sincerity, and the character’s neurological affliction, lends itself to comical outbursts that help animate the movie but more importantly, it invites us into the world of lonely guy looking for connection. Daniel Pemberton’s jazzy score is an eloquent accompaniment to a tale that’s ultimately a fable about love, loyalty and power.
Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast: Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis, Willem Dafoe, Leslie Mann, Bobby Cannavale, Ethan Suplee.
(R for language throughout including some sexual references, brief drug use, and violence.)