With the 1950s period-piece “Motherless Brooklyn,” writer-director Edward Norton delivers a richly layered, well-photographed film noir mystery pitting the classic underdog private detective against the Corrupt System.
As the STAR of “Motherless Brooklyn,” Norton proves a great actor can make unfortunate choices and deliver an uneven performance.
In the 1996 crime thriller “Primal Fear,” the young Norton did brilliant work as a murder suspect with dissociative identity disorder and a pronounced stammer. Every inch of the performance, including a shocking reveal, felt real.
I can’t say the same about the work in this film.
In “Motherless Brooklyn,” Norton’s Lionel is on the other side of the crime coin, as a lonely detective with Tourette Syndrome (and possibly some other undiagnosed conditions) investigating the murder of his boss and mentor and father figure friend.
Lionel twitches violently. He compulsively pulls at loose threads on his sweater, and he’ll open and close a door once, twice, three times. He’s prone to loud, uncontrollable vocal outbursts, and he often plays with words, e.g., when he greets his friend Frank, he’ll say, “Frank, Frankly Frankity Franco!”
At times Lionel’s condition is a factor in the complicated storyline, but more often than not, we’re distracted by Norton radically shifting gears as he launches into another physical tic, another rhyming vocal eruption, another explanation to yet another character that he has this thing with his brain and he can’t help himself, and he’s sorry.
It’s like watching a world-class vocalist hold a note forever just because he can, or a drummer indulging in an endless solo. The acting becomes ACTING, and it gets in the way more often that it legitimately serves the story.
Norton is more convincing and more effective when he plays quieter notes in illustrating Lionel’s condition, and when he delivers classic film-noir narration, telling us about his horrific childhood, walking us through how he came to work for the hard-boiled but soft-hearted World War II veteran and private detective Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), and sharing his reflections as he dives ever deeper into the mysterious circumstances surrounding Frank’s murder.
Norton’s adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s best-selling novel occasionally tests our patience with its two-hour, 20-minute running time, but the material and the sheer number of screen-worthy characters warrant an expansive canvas. (The film is set in the 1950s, some four decades before the time period of Lethem’s book — a smart move, giving it more of a natural film-noir atmosphere.)
When Frank gets in over his head on a case involving corruption at the highest levels of municipal government, he’s gunned down in the street, leaving a devastated Lionel to piece together a handful of very thin clues as he attempts to track down those responsible.
The very affliction that has even Lionel’s associates calling him “Freak Show” also allows him to remember conversations verbatim, and to piece together fragments of clues in a way “normal” people would never understand.
Lionel comes to believe a Harlem community activist named Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the key to unlocking the mystery. He befriends Laura Rose, who is quick to trust him and even dance with him and tenderly hold his hand, in credulity-stretching fashion.
The supporting players in “Motherless Brooklyn” are entertaining as well.
Alec Baldwin fills the screen with a rip-roaring performance as Moses “Mo” Randolph, a ruthless, racist, power-mad Commissioner of Just About Everything who has far more clout than the mayor and thinks nothing of relocating tens of thousands of poor and working-class minorities if it means he’ll get another park, another bridge, another building block in his vision for making New York the greatest city civilization has ever known.
Michael Kenneth Williams is a savant jazz musician who takes a liking to Lionel because he, too, can’t stop the noise in his head. Bobby Cannavale is Lionel’s slick and transparently ambitious colleague at the detective agency. Leslie Mann is Frank’s not-exactly-grieving widow. Willem Dafoe is a seemingly unhinged agitator with some very big secrets.
And though Bruce Willis’ Frank is killed off very early in the story, he returns from time to time as a voice of conscience and reason in Lionel’s overcrowded head. We know Willis can do this kind of role in his sleep, but that doesn’t mean he’s not terrific.
Director Norton and the production team display a keen eye for the time period, from the store window displays to the gorgeous automobiles to the wardrobe. There’s a steady stream of establishing shots showcasing New York’s magnificent bridges.
“Motherless Brooklyn” isn’t in the same league as obvious influences such as “The Maltese Falcon” and “Chinatown,” but it’s an effective mood piece and a worthy entry in the genre.