Nearly 20 years after making his directorial debut with the romantic comedy Keeping the Faith, Edward Norton has journeyed back behind the camera for an altogether more serious affair. Motherless Brooklyn is a detective story based on the 1999 novel of the same name by Jonathan Lethem. But where the book had a contemporary setting, Norton – who also adapts and stars – has transported the plot back to 1950s New York to make a period piece about power, corruption, and the dark side of gentrification, packaged in a convoluted murder-mystery.The film has much to say about discrimination and inequality, but while the central detective story is intriguing, the movie all-too-often gets sidetracked down narrative cul de sacs, giving the 144-minute film serious pacing issues, and making it a frequently frustrating watch.
Watch the trailer for Motherless Brooklyn below:
The movie kicks off with an extended cameo from Bruce Willis as Frank Minna, who runs a detective agency operated by orphans – hence the film’s title – whom he took under his wing when young. He now employs them as adults to do his bidding, and protect him when required — something they patently fail to do in the film’s early scenes, with Minna’s murder setting the movie’s events in motion.
Norton plays Lionel Essrog, one of “Minna’s Men,” a detective who has a photographic memory but also suffers from what we know today as Tourette Syndrome. This manifests itself as a series of tics, twitches, jerks and foul-mouthed streams of consciousness, and inspires his cruel nickname “Freakshow.” While there are a couple of jokes at the expense of his affliction, the use of Tourette’s never feels exploitative, with Lionel an intensely sympathetic character. There’s pain etched on Norton’s face following particularly embarrassing outbursts; Essrog describes it as having shards of glass in his brain, and “like living with an anarchist.”
Essrog’s detective colleagues inexplicably seem to have little interest in tracking down their mentor’s killer, so Lionel takes it upon himself to find out why his the closest thing he had to a father was killed. That initial murder mystery gives way to a horrifying conspiracy concerning efforts to take black neighborhoods and turn them over to white developers, the film delving into the cruel strategies used by policy-makers to destroy New York’s poorest communities.
Alec Baldwin plays the villainous, tyrannical politician Moses Randolph, and the film comes to life whenever he appears onscreen. The character is a none-too-subtle takedown of real-life figure Robert Moses, the “master planner” whose urban development of Long Island was criticized for being driven by racism. Baldwin delivers a typically bombastic performance, and his speech about power late in proceedings is the film’s most important, and just as relevant today.
Elsewhere, some of the supporting characters are painted in much broader brushstrokes, and spout hard-boiled dialogue that frequently sounds like parody, so-much-so that they seem less like living, breathing gangsters and police officers, and more like figures ripped from the pages of Dick Tracy. Along the journey of his investigation, Essrog falls for community activist Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), encounters and very nearly comes to blows with a tough musician (Michael Kenneth Williams), and tails a seeming vagrant called Paul Randolph (Willem Dafoe), who rations out information to give Essrog just enough detail at each of their meetings to prolong the plot. This makes the film feel all-too-often contrived, with conversations simply taking characters to the next story beat rather than playing out in more believable fashion.
But like the 1990 Dick Tracy movie, the period setting and stylized recreation of New York is simply stunning, with Norton and veteran cinematographer Dick Pope doing wonders with the film’s modest budget so it looks like a much more expensive film. While Daniel Pemberton’s affecting jazz score lends the story a nice sense of place and time, and counters the new Thom Yorke song “Daily Battles” which, while good, immediately takes you out of proceedings.