“Motherless Brooklyn” is the kind of knotty, ambitious, character-rich, politically conscious entertainment the studios so rarely get behind anymore, you can’t help wishing it were better.
An independently produced labor of love for its director and star, Edward Norton, that is being released in theaters by Warner Bros., it spins an old-fashioned detective yarn with a fine if unevenly deployed cast, a stylish but under-textured vision of 1950s New York and a sweeping indictment of racism, greed and big-city corruption. It’s a bumpy ride, a mixed bag and a movie whose noir-flavored civics lesson owes a significant debt to “Chinatown,” a classic it resembles more in outline than in effect.
The movie’s Jake Gittes figure, or aspirant, is Lionel Essrog (Norton), a Brooklyn gumshoe who dashes through the movie not with a bandage over his nose, but with a steady stream of involuntary tics, twitches and outbursts at the ready. Lionel has Tourette syndrome, which might appear to make him an illogical candidate for sleuthdom. Well, yes and no. His boss, a wily private investigator named Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), sees only the upsides of Lionel’s disorder: his impeccable memory, his unerring eye for detail and his immediate advantage over those who underestimate him.
It’s a pleasure to see Willis rocking a fedora and doing this kind of assured, laid-back character work, making it both poignant and genuinely disappointing when Minna abruptly exits the story in a haze of gunfire. He leaves behind a not-so-grief-stricken widow (Leslie Mann) and a floundering agency whose other detectives (a disjointed bunch played by Bobby Cannavale, Ethan Suplee and Dallas Roberts) try to move forward, leaving a devastated but determined Lionel to get to the bottom of Minna’s death.
He will spend the rest of this movie’s lumbering 2 1/2 hours tumbling headfirst into the kind of vast metropolitan conspiracy that entangles everyone in sight and beyond. These include the New York mayor (Peter Gray Lewis), an impassioned voice of protest (Willem Dafoe) and a lawyer, Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who advocates for housing fairness alongside a veteran activist (Cherry Jones).
Casting a malign shadow over Lionel’s investigation is the obscenely powerful master developer Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), who wants to bulldoze over what he has deemed the city’s “slums”; if his name and persona remind you of Robert Moses, you’ve made the filmmakers’ day. (And if Baldwin’s bellicose performance reminds you of a certain former Manhattan real-estate titan with a history of bigoted practices, even better.)
The Moses-Moses parallel, like many particulars of the plot, was concocted by Norton, who freely adapted the screenplay from Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 detective novel. The 20-year gap between that book’s publication and this picture’s release speak to just how long the filmmaker has been nurturing this passion project. Norton’s boldest, most admirably offbeat stroke was to move the story’s contemporary setting to the ’50s, the better to accommodate the characters’ fast-talking noir patois and to clothe some of the actors in attractive period knitwear. It also serves as a useful reminder to the audience that gentrification and discrimination, never far removed from present-day headlines, have deep historical roots.
The shift in milieu also naturally affords a few atmospheric dividends, none more so than a Harlem club where Lionel and Laura discuss tactics to a jazz band’s intoxicating accompaniment. (The always-welcome Michael Kenneth Williams plays a trumpeter; the splendid music we hear is performed by Wynton Marsalis.)
Elsewhere, however, Norton’s period mise-en-scène rarely feels persuasively inhabited, a problem not aided by a script that tells more than it shows and a camera that seems unsure where to position itself. An early attempt to drum up suspense and convey Randolph’s foul mystique, by keeping Baldwin’s face hidden until the last possible moment, feels particularly flubbed. (The digital cinematography is by Dick Pope, who’s done masterly work in period dramas like Mike Leigh’s “Peterloo” and “Mr. Turner.”)
Every good detective story is to some degree a skillful exercise in reverse engineering, moving backward from breathtaking revelations to head-scratching premises. (There are exceptions, of course, some of them by no less a master than Raymond Chandler, a brilliant stylist but a muddled plotter.) There are a few nifty twists at the end of “Motherless Brooklyn,” plus a harrowing action scene that makes resourceful use of a fire escape. But there is also the unshakable sense that the connective threads have not been woven with the requisite concision and finesse, and that the plot is muddled for reasons that go beyond strict narrative necessity.
Norton, directing his second feature 19 years after the religio-romantic comedy “Keeping the Faith,” does his strongest work in the margins. He’s clearly having fun hitting some of the familiar beats of the detective genre, as when he has Lionel go incognito as a newspaper reporter, and he teases out some lovely chemistry with Mbatha-Raw, a winning screen presence who gives the story an immeasurable boost.
His own performance, however, keeps pulling you in and pushing you out with its arsenal of jerking head motions and blurted non sequiturs. On the page, Lionel’s lucid narration and his sudden outbursts functioned in meaningful counterpoint; they put you inside his head. That Norton can’t achieve the same effect on screen is symptomatic of the entire movie, a self-styled deep plunge that never gets far beyond its mannered surface.
Running time: 2 hours, 24 minutes
Playing: In general release