Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival. Warner Bros. releases the film on Friday, November 1.
Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel “Motherless Brooklyn” combined the classic potboiler ingredients of a Dashiell Hammett yarn with contemporary postmodern flourishes. For his long-gestating adaptation, Edward Norton takes the material at face value, transplanting the story to a period-appropriate ‘50s milieu, resulting in a sturdy old-fashioned detective story with a lot on its mind. Above all else, it’s carried by the actor-director’s distinctive leading role, as a wandering investigator with Tourette’s Syndrome; his affection for the material comes through with a poignant performance and a sharp, expressionistic mood. Drop the occasional Thom Yorke composition and an all-too-resonant theme about urban gentrification, and this Warner Bros. crime caper wouldn’t look too out of place in the era it takes place.
Norton’s sophomore effort behind the camera comes nearly 20 years after his 2000 romcom “Keeping the Faith,” and it couldn’t be more different. Helped along by formidable turns by Alec Baldwin as a fictionalized Robert Moses and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Norton’s love interest, the movie is a grab bag of talent that carries it through a decidedly mixed bag. Despite some pacing troubles and myriad undeveloped characters, “Motherless Brooklyn” functions well enough as a throwback to the intelligent, atmospheric studio private investigator dramas to which it tips a velvety fedora, and shows evidence that this dormant genre still has legs.
Despite the updated setting, “Motherless Brooklyn” begins by closely following the template of Lethem’s novel. Lionel Essrog (Norton) and Gilbert (Ethan Suplee) are enmeshed in an enigmatic stakeout at the behest of their boss and father figure, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis in a glorified cameo). Frank, who gathered a handful of orphans years ago to run his private investigation firm (and a car service as cover), has asked two of his minions to hang tight in their car while he engages in some shadowy business with some mysterious suits in an apartment building. It doesn’t go so well, and after a frantic car chase from Manhattan to Queens, Frank’s dead and his grief-stricken disciples are left reeling with a handful of clues to sort things through.
At least, that’s Lionel’s plight. The rest of the so-called “Minna Men,” which include Tony (Bobby Cannavale) and Danny (Dallas Roberts), seem more keen on getting back to work under the orders of Minna’s widow Julia (Leslie Mann). But Lionel, who suffers from a disease that has yet to be named, owes much to Frank for providing him with a stable existence beyond the rest of the world that shuns him or turns a blind eye whenever he lets go with a random shout. Norton takes a tricky gamble of a performance and works wonders with it, lacing his physicality with jerky movements and sudden bouts of verbal gobbledygook every few seconds without playing them for laughs (except in a few carefully timed scenes, when the character seems just as amused by the ephemera that finds its way out of his mouth).
It’s no easy task for Lionel to get anyone to take him seriously, but as he follows the bread crumbs, the circumstances behind Minna’s death expand into a vast conspiracy — too vast, perhaps, to sustain the level of intrigue stuffed into this 144-minute movie. Lethem’s book unfolded across a tight 300 pages, but Norton’s treatment has a tendency to feel flabbier and redundant, cycling through a range of murky characters as it maps out a sprawling network of circumstances.
But the plot offers plenty of twists for Lionel to chew on. Ultimately, his winding investigation leads him to corrupt parks commissioner Moses Randolph (Baldwin), a thinly veiled variation of the real-life Robert Moses, whose city-planning ambitions squashed so many low-income communities across town. In the process of picking up these threads, Lionel barrels through a series of colorful characters, including a cartoonish Willem Dafoe as Randolph’s frumpy, rebellious brother and a host of gun-toting mobsters (Fisher Stevens among them).
Some of Lionel’s encounters with various gruff characters hold more interest than others, but the movie really comes alive once he connects with Laura (Mbatha-Raw, in a delicate turn), an activist fighting the city’s racist housing policies. As he follows her all the way up to Harlem, Lionel connects with an affable jazz musician (a terrifically assertive Michael K. Williams) and finds some measure of kinship in his quest for answers in a broken world. The movie’s finest moment finds Lionel unable to contain his stream of tics in the midst of a jazz performance that seems to commiserate with the stream-of-consciousness he struggles to control. It’s a cogent illustration of the movie’s most alluring trait — a character searching for meaning in a messy world, and lost in a sea of words at every turn.
Visually, “Motherless Brooklyn” doesn’t pull many exciting tricks, but veteran cinematographer Dick Pope manages to give New York City the “L.A. Confidential” treatment with evocative grey tones and shadowy street corners that deepen the mysterious atmosphere at every turn. This hyper-stylized movie-take on the city feels at once antiquated and modern, complimenting the way Moses speaks of the landscape as his personal art project. Baldwin manages to reign in his more exuberant tendencies and give his proto-Trumpian villain a real sense of purpose (“Power is doing what you like,” he says, in a standout monologue).
To that end, the movie eventually settles into a showdown involving no less than the city’s soul, with Lionel fighting a rigged system involving wealthy businessmen and their unwitting victims even though he knows some part of the battle has already been lost. That noble struggle allows “Motherless Brooklyn” to build toward a meaningful resolution of its many moving parts. In the pantheon of love letters to New York, it may not change the game, but it plays by the right rules.
Despite its bigger themes, the movie belongs mostly to Lionel, a good-natured man struggling from arrested development and being ostracized to learning how to take charge on his own. Norton’s voiceover helps fuse the movie’s disparate pieces together, and he’s always an absorbing screen presence, transforming Lionel’s Tourette’s syndromes (which he describes as “shards of glass in my brain”) into a hypnotic visual conceit. “You come off weird, but you’re sweet,” Laura tells Lionel, which captures the essence of this singular performance.
Nevertheless, while “Motherless Brooklyn” has character, it often comes up short of generating the emotion that the material demands. Lionel’s constant recollections about Minna — which unfold in prolonged flashbacks in the book — come and go in rushed observations that fall short of allowing the character’s impact on Lionel to come through. His developing romance with Laura lacks sufficient chemistry to make them seem like a credible pair. He spends much of the movie hiding the full nature of his investigation from her, and when the truth comes out, she pretty much just shrugs it off. “Motherless Brooklyn” often strains from squeezing in everything it can, resulting in fragments of a more cohesive movie.
But as passion projects go, this one at least does justice to its source material by transforming the plight of urban development into an immersive shaggy dog story. Like a lot of long-winded investigative epics, “Motherless Brooklyn” doesn’t aim to uncover every puzzle piece so much as it revels in the allure of putting them together. For New York City, a jagged enigma in constant motion, it’s a fitting salute.
“Motherless Brooklyn” premiered at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival. Warner Bros. releases it theatrically November 1, 2019.