Edward Norton has said that he called in every possible favor from his entire Hollywood career in order to get Motherless Brooklyn made, and his sprawling adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel feels very much like a passion project, both for better and for worse. Norton, who wrote, directed and plays the lead role, makes the story his own, shifting the contemporary narrative to 1957 and adding a historical context around the gentrification of New York City under renowned (and reviled) city planner Robert Moses.
A fictionalized version of Moses, named Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), has become the central villain in a film that now resembles an East Coast version of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown much more than a postmodern ’90s detective novel. Norton may have set himself a larger task than he can entirely pull off, but his ambition is impressive, and there are just enough intriguing characters, suspenseful sequences and fascinating period details to mostly hold the movie together.
As in the book, the movie opens with Norton’s Lionel Essrog dealing with the murder of his boss, private investigator Frank Minna (Bruce Willis in a glorified cameo), by a squad of unidentified goons. Lionel suffers from a condition that the movie never names but is closest to Tourette syndrome, with some elements of obsessive-compulsive disorder. He blurts strange phrases and twitches his body at inopportune moments (mostly played by the movie, disappointingly, for easy comedy), and he also compulsively checks and arranges objects around him. The movie contrasts Lionel’s sometimes incoherent interpersonal communication with hard-boiled voiceover that positions him as a cynical, world-weary noir-style detective.
It’s clear that Lionel, who was taken in at a young age by Frank along with other boys from the orphanage where he grew up, very much wants to be a detective like his mentor, and he even dons Frank’s coat and hat as he prowls the streets of NYC, trying to find out who killed his boss and friend. If Lionel is playacting as a detective, the movie is sort of playacting as a neo-noir, with the self-consciously jazzy score by Daniel Pemberton and the seedy locations, from an underground club in Harlem to Lionel’s tastefully ramshackle apartment (although it’s all a little too glossy to feel truly authentic). There’s even a femme fatale of sorts, Harlem activist Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who’s connected to the case in intricate (and increasingly convoluted) ways, and immediately catches the eye of the shy, awkward Lionel.
It takes nearly half the lengthy movie for Laura to show up, though, and while Mbatha-Raw and Norton have strong chemistry, the movie has so many other threads and interlocking subplots that their connection never really gets a chance to blossom. Lionel starts investigating Frank’s death alongside three of his colleagues at the detective agency, but his associates mostly disappear once Laura shows up, and the movie shifts gears to focus on the political machinations of Moses Randolph, whom Baldwin plays with more than a little Trumpian energy. Norton maintains the personal connection to the corruption story by tying both Lionel (via Frank’s death) and Laura directly to it, but he too often loses the thread, and the movie sometimes feels as adrift as Lionel, struggling to keep all the players straight.
Norton sometimes overdoes Lionel’s tics, but for the most part he gives a sensitive performance that conveys the character’s intelligence and social isolation in equal measure. The supporting cast is full of familiar faces who either play things too broadly (Willem Dafoe as a zealous anti-Randolph advocate) or are given very little to do (Bobby Cannavale as Frank’s second-in-command), but they add to the scope of the story and the sense that Frank’s death is a window into a larger world of corruption and backroom deals that are shaping the city. That’s in direct contrast to Lethem’s narrative, but Norton’s vision is wholly his own, and he pursues it until the end, even when it leads him astray.