Edward Norton brings a 20 year passion project to life as he stars, produces, writes and directs this adaptation of the Johnathan Lethem novel of the same name. Whereas that book was set in a contemporary Brooklyn, Norton decides to move the action to the 1950’s to tell an off-kilter detective story that involves murder, deciet, jazz and a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top (of course).
Norton stars as Lionel Essrog, a private investigator who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome, but also has a strong verbal and photographic memory that proves more than effective in his line of work. When his boss, mentor and friend, Frank (Bruce Willis), is murdered, Lionel sets out to find out who did it and why. He soon becomes embroiled in a complicated web of secrets and corruption as it soon becomes clear that the whole plot has something to do with Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), the commissioner for many of the city’s building department authorities.
Motherless Brooklyn is a strange beast. It has shades of classic detective stories of the neo noir variety, namely Chinatown, but it is operating completely in its own rhythm and key. There’s the hard-boiled voice-over, there’s meetings in smoky bars, and there’s sharp suits and vintage cars roaming the streets, but it feels very different to many of its kind, for better and for worse.
The main component that makes Motherless Brooklyn feel so distinct is the character of Lionel. The character is quite an original take on the figure of the private eye, with his uncontrollable outbursts and twitches often throwing both him and the people he is questioning off balance. It’s a strength that proves to be as useful his photographic memory, as people have a habit of underestimating his intelligence and level of observation. What you make of Norton’s performance will largely depend on your opinion when it comes to actors portraying such syndromes on screen, but he makes Lionel a very likeable lead, distilling him to a very simple fact: he is just a very loyal friend just looking for the truth.
That search for the truth is where the film can be at its most intriguing and at its most frustrating. It’s a dense plot, and at over 140 minutes, there’s a lot of threads that end up going nowhere. As it becomes clear that the death of Frank had something to do with one of New York’s most powerful city commissioners, the story shifts into one that’s concerned with racial discrimination and prejudice within government as plans are put in place to buy out and demolish neighbourhoods populated by minorities. The film does feel invigorated by these themes, and the parables to today’s presidency are easy to spot (Baldwin often feels like he’s on the cusp of delivering his SNL-version of Trump), but the often foggy nature of the narrative can leave these themes a little lost in the dark.
The look of the film is also another piece of the Motherless Brooklyn puzzle that doesn’t quite lock into place. Shot by acclaimed cinematographer Dick Pope, there’s some brilliant moments of strong lighting to create long drawn out shadows that help establish this as a neo noir. But the digital nature of the photography also has a tendency to make everything seem a bit too slick and shiny, which can often take you out of the 50’s setting as you end up craving either a little bit more grit to the images, or something that is more overtly noir in its level of contrast.
Cast-wise, Norton has assembled a great list of recognisable character actors to bring his passion project to life, with the likes of Willem Dafoe, Bobby Cannavale and Michael K. Williams turning in strong performances. The gem though is the ever brilliant Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Laura Rose, an activist fighting for urban renewal. More than just the dame to protect, she gives the film a great deal of soul and strikes up a very sweet chemistry with Norton’s Lionel.
I would be remiss not to mention perhaps what is the most successful element of this whole project, and that is Daniel Pemberton’s score. A lively and moody jazz composition driven by double bass, soulful synths and aching brass, it is the perfect bed for this slightly off beat detective story, representing Lionel and the way he views the world with the kind of panache Pemberton always demonstrates in his work. There is also a new Thom Yorke song, which is fine by itself but feels a little out of place when the needle drops in the movie.
Motherless Brooklyn is a strange beast. Occasionally engrossing, but also slow and frustrating, oddball but also very serious. It is operating on its own frequency, and it’s one that you’ll either tap into or not. But there is a unique take on the hard-boiled detective tale here, with a willing cast and an atmosphere that is very in key with the eccentricities of its main character. A detective story that gets a little lost in the dark, but when it finds a footing, it’s hard not to become intrigued.
Dir: Edward Norton
Scr: Edward Norton, based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Lethem
Cast: Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe
Prd: Edward Norton, Bill Migliore, Gigi Pritzker, Rachel Shane, Michael Bederman
DOP: Dick Pope
Music: Daniel Pemberton
Runtime: 144 mins
Motherless Brooklyn is out on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital from April 13th.