James Clay // Film Critic
When accessing Edward Norton’s sprawling gumshoe tale MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN (based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem), it’s easy to get caught up in the old school noir feel. All that is, is just set dressing to make a film that has a cherished actor swinging for the fences. This is the first directorial effort for Norton in 20 years and quite a pivot from his romantic-comedy KEEPING THE FAITH. It’s a messy vision that never is quite able to come together, but there’s something chin-stroking about what Norton is training to achieve.
He’s an actor with a reputation for being a serious artist rather than getting lost in the celebrity of it all. However, his movie finds levity in this labyrinthian story of greed, corruption, dames, and at the center is Norton as a detective with Tourette’s-like symptoms before the disease was diagnosed. It’s a bold move on Norton’s part playing this character and completely moving the setting of the novel from the 1990s to the 1950s. When the film falters narratively, there are other elements (like Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s soothing score) that make this cooky piece of filmmaking succeed.
Through a hardboiled voiceover, midlevel P.I. Lionel Essrog (Norton) lays down the law of the land. He works for Frank Minna (Bruce Willis in a throwaway role), who has taken the troubled Essrog under his wing. On Minna’s request, he and lumbering partner (Ethan Suplee) tail their boss to a meeting with the goons of shady New York politician Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin, ironically channeling a toned-down version of his Trump impression). When things go awry, and Frank is murdered 10 minutes into the film. Essrog sprints to get to the bottom of why his mentor was whacked.
The story adapted by Norton is superfluous to the inherently more interesting elements, namely in the score and Norton’s unconventional acting choices. Along the way, he encounters Randolph’s wormy brother, Paul (Willem Dafoe), who plays the foil to all of his brother’s backdoor dealings. And there’s a new take on the femme fatale in Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
Watching Essrog interact with the criminal underworld is far more fascinating than what’s uncovered. There’s an air of unpredictability to every time we meet a new character. Rarely do they ridicule, or even react to him. One can only imagine all the different takes Norton shot to get the perfect response from his scene partners. It’ll be intriguing when the film’s release if he talks about his process of getting into that spontaneous mindset.
Once all the chess pieces are set, Norton lets the film turn into a mood piece. All of Norton’s directing choices amplify the inherently dull subject matter. It’s a film that has a modern feel, yet firmly rooted in a classical Hollywood mindset. Yorke’s score of blaring horns interrupt scenes without warning appropriating that classic noir trope mixed with the glitchy sensibilities he uses in Radiohead. It’s almost as if Norton and Yorke’s choices are mirroring the clutter that’s going on inside Essrog’s head.
It will be a fascinating litmus test to see where audiences fall when it comes to Norton’s take on Tourette’s. Norton’s got the love for Essrog and develops him into being more than just a sympathetic character. He’s a legit detective. There’s also an argument to be made that this affliction is used merely for a showy performance. I can imagine if 12-year-old boys get a hold of this movie, they’ll have a field day blurting out some of Norton’s more offensive outbursts.
Once the story finally becomes comprehensible, it comes down to Essrog exposing Randolph’s corrupt business practices. The reveals are more like a pillow fight than a rock war, and Norton does his best to stick the landing.
MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN is an audacious film noir that breaks the conventions while celebrating the tropes.
MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN opens in theaters on Friday, November 1.