It’s familiar comfort to see the Warner Brothers logo in front of an old school film noir, which is what Motherless Brooklyn embodies without a hint of a post-modern angle or subversion of archetype. An ideologically neutral gumshoe occasionally dips his toes into the muck that makes up the big, unforgiving city’s shady underbelly; he finds the one case that turns out to be well over his head, exposing a sprawling conspiracy that goes all the way to the top; a well-connected, all powerful heavy gives a grandstanding monologue about the “true meaning of power” as he dehumanizes common folk; the well-meaning dame with the secret past melts our anti-hero’s self-centered heart, enough that he might indeed choose to do the right thing before the credits roll. Written, directed by and starring Edward Norton, adapted from Jonathan Lethem’s novel, the film’s an unapologetic genre retread that earns the shield that precedes it.
Norton plays Lionel, the loyal assistant with a photographic memory to private dick extraordinaire Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), knee-deep in hush-hush conspiracies in 1950s New York City. Lionel suffers from a nervous condition that compels him to blurt out at random. It’s not named in the film, but he clearly has Tourette Syndrome. While it’s refreshing to see a depiction in mainstream cinema that doesn’t try to immediately extract easy chuckles from his affliction, there also isn’t much of a thematic, character or plot-based reason for it in Norton’s adaptation. Rather than paint Lionel as a typical noir outsider, on the fringe of society because of his condition, Lionel’s Tourette’s seems to more allow Norton to scratch his usual acting itch by playing yet another twitchy character. Most annoying of all, he just undercuts every scene with a sudden comedic moment.
After one of Frank’s equally ambitious and dangerous cases goes as south as anyone can muster, Lionel’s left with his own devices to figure out what went wrong, and eventually uncover a conspiracy that involves housing discrimination based on race. The prerequisite power-hungry fat cats who stand to make oodles of cash and draw a buttload of power off the weak and powerless are of course weary of Lionel’s sniffing and dispatch (my favorite) noir trope: the two goons who lay a nice punch or two into the ole bread basket and say, “Keep your trap shut if ya know what’s good for ya!” The cabal of evil string pullers are led by a power-obsessed city planner played by Alec Baldwin, who only has to dial down the buffoonery of his Trump impression to nail the part of a heartless, narcissistic scumbag. And in the middle of all this is Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), just the right kind of pure spirit to give Lionel’s morally neutral motivations a nudge in the right direction. Lionel and Laura’s arc is the most thematically potent and organically heartfelt element of Motherless Brooklyn, expertly contrasting the cold cynicism of the plot, Norton and Mbatha-Raw’s tender chemistry a big plus.
Norton embraces all his genre’s tropes while using the modern filmmaking tools to his technical advantage. In that sense, Motherless Brooklyn is similar to 1997’s magnificent throwback L.A. Confidential. Both films replicate the structure and mood of a ’40s noir while reveling in the violence and potty mouth language their Hayes Code-bound influences couldn’t. DP Dick Pope is Mike Leigh’s usual cinematographer, and while he of course embraces the smooth artificiality of the classic noir, he nevertheless gives the film the same lived-in feel that he does in Leigh’s work. Daniel Pemberton’s horn-heavy jazz score fits film’s overall tone, while his chaotic percussions perfectly capture Lionel’s racing mind. Just like he did with Keeping the Faith, his last directorial effort almost two decades ago, Norton seeks to accomplish nothing more than a gratifying genre homage. Motherless Brooklyn is far from an airtight masterwork like Confidential—it’s too bloated at almost two and a half hours and contains some acting choices that borderline on irritating—but for those looking for a neo-noir that goes down as harshly yet as satisfyingly as Sam Spade’s favorite Bacardi, it’ll deliver.
Director: Edward Norton
Writer: Edward Norton
Starring: Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis, Bobby Cannavale, Willem Dafoe, Michael Kenneth Williams
Release Date: November 1, 2019