‘Motherless Brooklyn’ Film Review: Edward Norton Mines the Rich Tradition of Film Noir

Telluride Film Festival: Director and star Norton adapts Jonathan Lethem’s novel in a film with echoes of “Chinatown,” “The Big Sleep” and many others

Last Updated: September 1, 2019 @ 6:15 PM

There are two things to know about Edward Norton’s “Motherless Brooklyn.” One, this is a film in service of a great novel by a director who knows how great that novel is. And two, this is a film about great acting by an actor who knows what makes acting great.

These two things don’t always go together. Not all actors know good books. Not all good books make great movies, or even good movies. Sometimes the writing is just too big and weighty and its broad loftiness holds the film down, never giving it a life of its own because the words are just so beautiful — who wants to cut any of them?

Edward Norton took 19 years to bring this film to life, 19 years of a career in an evolving Hollywood film industry. The book by Jonathan Lethem has been described as a “hip postmodern novel,” three words that should never be used together in a sentence but are unavoidable, apparently. Norton has removed much of that and placed the story where it actually belongs — deeply embedded in the rich traditions of American film noir.

In so doing, he has reset the story in the 1950s (you can tell by the cars and the hats). Although not strictly noir — which ordinarily requires failure at the end — it’s enough of a pulp fiction to wear the title proudly. Norton himself plays Lionel Essrog, a detective with Tourette syndrome whose mentor (Bruce Willis) is murdered, setting off a twisty, “Chinatown”-like mystery.

The thrust of the film is that New York City is being run by racist overlords who are evicting black and Latino families to make way for either highways or more expensive real estate developments. Alec Baldwin gets another chance to play the Trump-like figure who is destroying the city’s diverse neighborhoods to achieve his insatiable grab for power. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays the femme fatale of sorts that Essrog becomes involved with. Baldwin has the film’s most quotable moment near the end explaining his definition of power.

And yes, you can’t help but think of John Huston in Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” or of Jack Nicholson or Faye Dunaway. “Motherless Brooklyn” echoes “Chinatown,” as it does “The Big Sleep” and dozens of others. But it parts ways dramatically with Polanski’s film, which famously dead ends in not just tragedy, but in the arrogant, foolish choices of its protagonist.

The flip here is that reluctant investigator Essrog is the opposite of Nicholson’s Jake Gittes — he’s working with a major disability that makes him stand out in a crowd and prevents him from being cool enough to get the girl like Bogart or Mitchum could do. Norton, and Lethem, of course, both intend to upend the detective/pulp/noir genre with this hero who can barely get out a sentence and almost always embarrasses himself.

The focus of the film, then, is partly the plot, but mostly the idea that having a disability is an obstacle, however it doesn’t mean you can’t still be the hero or the smartest guy in the room. Much will be made of Norton’s bringing this character and this disability to life. It takes some getting used to, for sure, but eventually the film and the performance finds a perfect rhythm.

“Motherless Brooklyn” is yet another Telluride film that Hollywood rarely makes anymore. It’s an ensemble piece made by an actor showcasing actors. The script is both Lethem and Norton’s interpretation of Lethem. A lot of old fashioned isms pop up in the movie here and there to remind us of how things actually were in the ’50s, as opposed to how we’d want them to be. How that will play with today’s audiences is anyone’s guess.

Norton has made a film that just works. Any effort to portray someone with Tourette syndrome risks coming off as blatantly bad, but here the gambit pays off. The Norton we know completely disappears, and then we’re watching the character, and then we’re immersed in the story. He pulls it off.

The film manages to not be preachy when it so easily could have been. As “Motherless Brooklyn” reaches back in time to explore racism and New York City’s history, it also brings us urgently back to right now — how we look at politics and leadership, what offenses we’re willing to accept, what ideals are still worth fighting for.

“Motherless Brooklyn” takes its time getting to where it’s going, and sometimes flies off the rails. But ultimately, it sticks its landing, just as Essrog does, as he untangles himself from his brain’s imperfect rhythm to find some kind of quiet and order at last.