Edward Norton has been interested in bringing Jonathan Lethem’s novel, Motherless Brooklyn, to the screen for nearly twenty years, acquiring the rights not long after wrapping up American History X. With this long-awaited adaptation, Norton aims to establish himself as a triple threat, serving as its writer, director, and star, not to mention a producer. His passion for the project is present both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. This is a slickly crafted, well-acted neo-noir thriller that harkens back to classics like Chinatown. Of course, at times it’s maybe a little too reminiscent of the aforementioned film, right down to the fact that our hero occasionally goes by Jake.
Jake is merely a pseudonym for protagonist Lionel Essrog, played by Norton. Lionel is an isolated private investigator who struggles with Tourette Syndrome, although this medical term has yet to become a household name. Where Lethem’s book took place in modern day, Norton turns back the clock to the hardboiled, jazz-infused 1950s. Although society has labeled him as a freak show, Lionel is nonetheless taken under the wing of his mentor Frank (Bruce Willis). When Frank is killed in a bloody confrontation, Lionel inherits his mantel and his hat. Hitting the streets of New York, he sets out to unravel the intricacies that led to Frank’s death. What he finds is a multi-layered mystery involving shady politics, family secrets, and race relations.
Alec Baldwin is practically typecast as Moses Randolph, a loud-mouthed, impatient land developer who was obviously modeled after “master builder” Robert Moses. Randolph is a booming figure who can practically hold the city of New York in the palm of his hand. There are those who oppose Randolph’s widespread dominance over the urban area, including Willem Dafoe as an enigmatic figure and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a lawyer fighting the good fight. At the center of everything is Lionel, slowly but surely connecting the dots. His investigation takes him all across New York, which becomes a character in itself.
Yet, not even the Big Apple can overshadow Norton’s all-encompassing presence. Norton completely throws himself into this role, getting down all the tics of someone living with Tourette’s. Had another actor taken on this role, it may’ve come off as too showy or – for lack of a better word – Oscar-baity. With a method performer of Norton’s talent, however, we never doubt him in the role. Although Lionel’s condition is prevalent throughout the film, the audience actually starts to forget about it after a while. That’s because there’s much more to Lionel than a disorder and Norton molds him into a complex, sympathetic gumshoe.
Norton devises an engaging mystery as well, albeit without adding anything that new to the formula. From the real estate subplot to the mysterious woman who catches our hero’s eye, it’s hard not to compare Motherless Brooklyn to Chinatown. Even at its most familiar, though, the film is less of a retread and more a loving throwback to the neo-noir films of yesteryear. At times, you kind of wish that Norton went all out with this homage by draping it in black and white. He also could’ve afforded to cut down the runtime by about twenty minutes. For its craft and performances, however, Motherless Brooklyn is a satisfying whodunit, even if it’s not Chinatown.