With its unique gumshoe protagonist and relevant historical content, Edward Norton’s ambitious, atmospheric “Motherless Brooklyn” isn’t without spark or substance — but its excessive running time and muddy storytelling keep it from triumphing.
Based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem, which Norton adapted for the screen, the film is, on one level, an old-fashioned Hollywood-style noir detective drama — private eye, jazzy soundtrack, smoky nightclub, fedoras, reliable narrator. Norton sets Lethem’s 1990s story in 1957 and adds fact-inspired material involving egregious corruption in New York City’s halls of power.
Lionel Essrog, played by Norton, is an orphanage-raised detective with Tourette syndrome. In voice-over accounts, with self-awareness and humor, Lionel describes the tics and uncontrollable verbal outbursts caused by the condition.
Lionel works alongside three cohorts (Bobby Cannavale, Ethan Suplee, Dallas Roberts) at a detective agency run by his mentor, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). After Frank is killed while working on a case, Lionel sets out to find the perpetrators. He learns that Frank may have uncovered dangerous secrets relating to the shady city-planning world.
Key figures include villainous developer Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin). Modeled after real-life “master builder” Robert Moses, and bringing Donald Trump to mind, Moses Randolph has implemented policies that benefit elite white people while razing neighborhoods inhabited by minorities and low-income residents.
Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a committed civil-rights attorney, works for grassroots activist Gabby Horowitz (Cherry Jones). Laura lives in Harlem, where her father (Robert Ray Wisdom) owns a jazz club. She and Lionel, both outsiders, are drawn to each other.
A rumpled-looking architect (Willem Dafoe) and a sympathetic trumpet player (Michael Kenneth Williams) also are part of the picture.
Norton has put lots of thought into this film, which embraces noir traditions and New York City and addresses mid-century malfeasance that has had lasting consequences.
Its period elements, including Pennsylvania Station as it looked in 1957, before development destroyed the architectural jewel, are impressive.
Norton wisely doesn’t present Lionel as a disease personification. Instead, he integrates the Tourette condition into Lionel’s entire being. Lionel is smart, savvy, funny, sweet and vulnerable as well as obsessive and twitchy.
Yet despite its merits, the movie is disappointingly uneven.
The plot, which brings to mind a New York version of “Chinatown,” with bits of Sidney Lumet’s urban-corruption dramas, isn’t original or substantial enough to justify the film’s 144-minute running time.
The emotional connection Lionel shares with Laura resonates weakly, and Lionel’s grief over the death of his mentor barely comes across.
Capable supporting actors have too little to do. Williams, whose character’s jazzy trumpet notes appear to be in direct tune with the chaotic stirrings inside Lionel’s head, is a standout.
Two and a half stars
Starring: Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe
Written and directed by: Edward Norton
Running time: 2 hours, 24 minutes