Adapted from Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel, “Motherless Brooklyn” has a lot going for it. It has a distinctive, alluringly worn setting: ‘50s New York, mostly of the outer-borough variety. It has the timeless appeal of genre: A detective is trying to figure out who murdered a colleague and why. It has the related but variant appeal of a more recent genre: the paranoid thriller. The most powerful public servant in New York (nope, not the mayor) may or may not have had something to do with the killing. Yet the movie also refreshes the conventions of both genres, thanks to an out-of-left-field twist: the detective, Lionel Essrog, suffers from Tourette’s syndrome. That condition of the nervous system causes those afflicted to make uncontrollable tics and noises. Let’s just say it’s not the best way to blend into the shadows. And over the course of more than two hours, Lionel has many shadows that need blending into.
Edward Norton plays Lionel, the performance nicely balanced between “Rain Man” oddity and nuanced idiosyncrasy. It surely helped that the actor had a sympathetic director: himself. “Motherless Brooklyn” is Norton’s second directorial effort. The first was “Keeping the Faith” (2000). Don’t worry I hadn’t heard of it either. Talk about successfully blending into shadows.
Norton also wrote the script. With all those balls in the air, he presumably did some serious relying on Dick Pope. Pope, best-known as Mike Leigh’s go-to cinematographer, has done a balancing act of his own. Shooting period is always tricky. If a movie doesn’t look different enough, its past-ness is dubious at best, and distracting at worst. If it looks too different, it becomes distracting in a different, and worse, way. Pope threads the visual needle. “Motherless Brooklyn” looks terrific, without looking too terrific. Lionel’s ratty office, various street-corner encounters, a Harlem jazz club, the power broker’s imposing office: Each of those very different settings looks persuasive and inviting in its own way.
What’s best about the movie is mood and texture, and the ensemble cast (the second best thing about the movie) mostly defers to those qualities. In that sense, “Motherless Brooklyn” might be described as novelistic, and in a good way. After the first hour, when the simultaneous unraveling and tying up of various plot threads become the chief order of business, it becomes novelistic in a very different, not-good way. You can almost feel the movie pivot the first time it visits that club. It goes from being something about feel to something about checking boxes.
Norton clearly dotes on his actors, and that doting produces mostly excellent results. Bruce Willis, as Lionel’s boss, is almost beguilingly restrained. The wondrous Cherry Jones, as an activist, makes you wish the movie were about her. As an aspiring lawyer With An Unexpected Past, Gugu Mbatha-Raw acquits herself winningly in a thankless role. It’s an everything-connects treat to see Michael K. Williams, as a very (I mean very) Miles Davis-like trumpeter and Robert Wisdom, as the owner of the jazz club, reunited from “The Wire.”
Then there are Alec Baldwin and Willem Dafoe. Well, where to begin? Baldwin plays the all-powerful public official, Moses Randolph. Do you think he might have been based on Robert Moses? Dafoe plays an eccentric fellow (yes, Willem Dafoe playing someone eccentric) who helps Lionel. More important, Dafoe’s character turns out to be . . . well, he, too, has An Unexpected Past, or, more accurately, Unexpected Relationship. The larger point is that he and Baldwin give nicely symmetrical performances: Not only do they chew the scenery, they do it with relish and mustard both. “Do you have the first inkling of how power works?” Randolph bellows at Lionel. When it comes to bellowing, Baldwin has no peer today – which is a good thing for prospective bellowers, but a bad thing for “Motherless Brooklyn.”
Written and directed by Edward Norton. Starring Norton, Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Willem Dafoe, Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones, Michael Kenneth Williams At Boston Common, suburbs. 144 minutes. R (language, sexual references, violence drug use)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.