Edward Norton is a standout in ‘Motherless Brooklyn’; his screenplay, not so much

Ann Hornaday & Thomas Floyd

The Washington Post – Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn is nominally an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel of the same name. But this hard-boiled, richly atmospheric tale of urban manifest destiny and malfeasance owes at least as much to Robert Caro’s The Power Broker.

That book was about Robert Moses, the Machiavellian public figure whose vision and coldblooded ambition shaped much of modern-day New York. And if Moses isn’t a literal character in Motherless Brooklyn, he’s its chief bête noire in the form of Moses Randolph, played by Alec Baldwin in a performance that bears more than a whiff of his Donald Trump impersonation on Saturday Night Live. Shifting Lethem’s time frame from the 1990s to the 1950s and creating a period piece with sobering political resonance, Norton has done what every self-respecting filmmaker must do when tackling literature: Throw the book out and make your movie.

That movie turns out to be a stylish, thoughtful throwback – not to the 1990s or the 1950s, but the 1970s, when movies like Chinatown and All the President’s Men were made by studios instead of streaming entities. With its postwar cynicism, world-weary gumshoes and stench of civic corruption, Motherless Brooklyn most obviously tips its fedora to the first film, which still reigns supreme as a neo-noir classic. Norton, who wrote and directed Motherless Brooklyn, does his best to imitate the genre’s snappy dialogue and clever red herrings; but what starts out as a mystery as intelligent as it is intriguing winds up being over-plotted didactic.

If anything, Motherless Brooklyn is most valuable as a reminder of what a fine actor Norton is. Here he plays Lionel Essrog, a trusted factotum for a private detective named Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who as the film opens has enlisted Lionel to cover him during an important clandestine meeting. Things go sideways, and circumstances send Lionel on an odyssey through a New York of jazz clubs, modest brownstones and Randolph’s own office, where he oversees the development of the city like the pharaoh one character compares him to.

Shot by Dick Pope to resemble a dime-store detective novel and scored with equal beauty and sensitivity by composer Daniel Pemberton, Motherless Brooklyn is a film of handsome surfaces and textures, and Norton has assembled a first-rate cast to populate a story that features a Jane Jacobs-like activist played by Cherry Jones, as well as Lionel’s fellow ‘Minna Men’, a motley crew – like Lionel, former orphans – played with bantering brio by Bobby Cannavale, Dallas Roberts and Ethan Suplee.

Alec Baldwin (L) plays developer Moses Randolph opposite Edward Norton’s Lionel Essrog, a private detective. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

But it’s Norton himself who delivers the standout performance in which he plays the kind of misfit-with-hidden-layers that brought him to fame in 1996’s Primal Fear.

Lionel lives with Tourette’s syndrome, which means that he’s given to sudden facial tics, verbal stammers and inappropriate outbursts. If the idea of an Oscar-nominated actor playing someone with a disability sounds offensive, Norton successfully navigates that minefield by way of a performance that’s understated, thoughtful and, in one instance, deeply moving.

While visiting a Harlem club one night, Lionel starts to commune with the bebop jazz being played, the random-seeming beats and sudden changes aligning perfectly with the scattershot rhythms of his own brain.

If Motherless Brooklyn could have stayed in that space, balancing its shaggy-dog story and social conscience a bit more economically, it might have been a home run.

Instead, Norton packs in more characters – a hysterically pitched human billboard played by Willem Dafoe, and a gratuitous love interest played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw – and more plot twists that begin to feel increasingly contrived, talky and overdetermined. Still, the milieu and message of Motherless Brooklyn ring startlingly true, at a time when raw power, rank impunity and ruthless greed are as ascendant as ever. Past is still prologue, even when it’s pure pulp.

‘MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN’ IS A PASSSION PROJECT BOTH PERSONAL AND PROFESSIONAL

Edward Norton leans in and pauses, putting a dam in his stream of consciousness.

The 50-year-old actor has otherwise carried himself with an enthusiastically anxious energy throughout a conversation about his new film, Motherless Brooklyn, rocking his chair from side to side one moment, tapping a spoon against his coffee saucer the next. Now, Norton is taking a second to collect himself and choose his words carefully.

“I’m not trying to throw shade,” he said on an October afternoon in Washington, DC. “But when LA people roll into New York to make a New York movie, they make a very, very different kind of movie than when New York people who have lived there for 30 years make a New York movie. It’s why Woody Allen’s movies made in New York have a kind of magic that was often imitated, never replicated. It’s why some of (Martin) Scorsese’s earlier and best films have an awareness of where and how.” Norton’s understanding and appreciation of New York City is evident in Motherless Brooklyn, a film noir homage set in the 1950s that he wrote, directed, produced and stars in. When it comes to his adopted home of the past three decades, he tends to get protective.

Motherless Brooklyn marks a re-emergence of sorts for Norton, who hasn’t had a substantial role on-screen since his supporting turn in the 2016 drama Collateral Beauty.

“Choosing things is very hard to systematise or characterise,” the three-time Oscar nominee says when explaining why he acts less frequently nowadays. “It’s elusive and ever-changing.

“When it hits, it hits hard. The only thing that has really changed for me is, at a certain point, the novelty of just a genre experience doesn’t interest me as much as it did.” Although Norton admires films like Chinatown and LA Confidential, the appeal of the noir genre on its own wasn’t enough to move the needle.

Rather, it was the opportunity to explore the depth of New York’s history, beauty and complexity that turned Motherless Brooklyn into a passion project worth its two-decade journey to the screen.

“There is a degree of love letter to the city in this movie,” co-star Willem Dafoe said.

“Besides the political story that he tells and the detective story and that kind of nostalgia, somewhere deeply he addresses how – in a city of this size, with this kind of classic melting pot – people deal with each other. It’s very particular to New York City, I think.”

New York, though, is not Norton’s hometown; that would be Columbia, Maryland, a city founded by his maternal grandfather, real estate developer James Rouse. Norton fondly remembers his formative years wedged in suburbia between Baltimore and Washington, when he would see plays at the National Theatre, make pilgrimages to the 9.30 Club, and listen to the Pixies, the Clash and R.E.M. on radio station WHFS.

In his early 20s, he relocated to New York and landed a job at his grandfather’s non-profit, Enterprise Community Partners, which helps create affordable housing for low-income residents.

There, the ideas Norton would eventually probe in Motherless Brooklyn took root.

“I was going all over Brooklyn, all over Queens, all over in the Bronx and Harlem, and talking to people about the crushing situation they had been in” before finding affordable housing, Norton recalled. “I grew into an awareness of what had happened in the mid-’50s. These really wrongheaded ideas – but also, frankly, straight-up unapologetic racism – were baked into the infrastructural decisions of the city, essentially by one person.”

That man was Robert Moses, a mid-century urban planner who came to have an outsize influence on shaping New York City as we know it.

Hailed by some for spearheading the construction of countless roads, bridges and parks across the city, Moses also bulldozed his way to a reputation for recklessly enabling elitism and gentrification. Norton initially struggled to find a creative avenue through which to explore such sprawling issues. Then he got his hands on an advance copy of Motherless Brooklyn in 1999, not long after finishing production on Fight Club and wrapping up his Oscar campaign for American History X.

“There were a lot of times where I thought, ‘How could you do this?’ and it seemed very esoteric,” Norton said of his attempt to address Moses’s contentious legacy.

“Then I read Motherless Brooklyn, in which the plot is almost tertiary to the point that Jonathan, the author, can hardly narrate it to you. But it’s this phenomenal character hook. Lionel is this hot mess of contradictions – he’s hilarious, poignant, really smart. By the end of the first page, wherever this guy is going, you’re going with him.

“Then the lightbulb moment for me was that this could be the conveyance into” an urban development story, Norton said.

While the book was set in the 1990s, Norton went to Lethem with a radical proposal to revamp Motherless Brooklyn on-screen by changing the year to 1957. The narrative’s throwback gumshoe aesthetic would play better cinematically in a period-appropriate setting, Norton argued. Lethem gave his blessing with little persuading necessary.