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Motherless Brooklyn has been Edward Norton’s passion project for nearly 20 years. He acquired the rights to Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel of the same name shortly after it was published, although he could never quite get it off the ground. Now that the film is finally here, with Norton directing and adapting the screenplay, it is easy to see what drew him to it. Like Chinatown, it uses a noir framework to tell a story about corruption, power, and redemption. This is all heavy stuff, especially when the lead actor is in the director’s chair, but Norton’s affection for his characters helps overcome its occasional stumbles.
The biggest departure between Norton’s adaptation and the source material is the time period. Lethem’s novel had a modern setting, but Norton shifts everything back to the 1950s. It is a smart choice, since the hard-boiled dialogue is a better fit, and all the political intrigue now has universal resonance. Along with cinematographer Dick Pope and production designer Beth Mickle, Norton creates a convincing version of New York. Big cars and neon signs are everywhere, while the characters strike handsome profiles with their fedoras and bespoke suits. All that’s missing is the black-and-white photography, although Pope creates pale pools of light that suggest there is little hope in this hardened city.
Norton plays Lionel Essrog, a private eye who compulsively twitches and shouts, and one interesting subplot is how friends, strangers, and enemies tolerate his affliction. When Lionel’s boss and mentor Frank (Bruce Willis) is gunned down in the street, he and his colleagues look for the men responsible. This leads Lionel through a sticky web of city politics, with commissioner Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) looking to raze poor, predominantly black neighborhoods through eminent domain.
Some of the best scenes slow down Lionel’s investigation and opt to showcase supporting characters discussing housing policy concerns. It’s no accident Baldwin’s defiant monologues sound like another rich New York asshole who views success through his construction projects. It is to Baldwin’s credit that he humanizes the role, downplaying his comic instincts to sound like the blowhards he played in Malice and Glengarry Glen Ross.
For Lionel to solve the mystery of Frank’s death, Norton’s screenplay relies on too many contrivances. Characters confide in Lionel easily, leading to scenes that unload plot exposition. Some twists are a touch too elegant: The right character always uncovers a big secret at the most dramatically revealing moment. Norton’s film suffers from bloat and talky characters, so his solution is to give all his actors memorable, impassioned speeches. Willem Dafoe makes a strong impression as Randolph’s biggest critic, while Gugu Mbatha-Raw is convincing as an activist who takes pity on Lionel. Motherless Brooklyn is about systemic racism in New York, and though Lionel is often framed as the white savior, at least it depicts gentrification in a realistic way.
Lethem’s novel creates genuine poignancy because we see Lionel’s private thoughts, and no one on the outside can see the sensitivity on the inside. But in the film, there’s the risk that his mannerisms devolve into shtick. Norton uses physical strain and dramatic irony to work his way around this problem. There are sad scenes in which he wants to provide comfort, but must first satisfy his compulsions. How and when he overcomes his affliction is where Motherless Brooklyn finds its heart.
In a recent interview, Norton said he called in every favor he had, just so he could make this film. Motherless Brooklyn is far from perfect—it is too long and a touch too indulgent—and yet audiences may find themselves returning to it in the years ahead.
Motherless Brooklyn opens Friday in theaters everywhere.