You can see why Edward Norton held onto the rights to make “Motherless Brooklyn” for years and years before he finally got his chance to film it. It’s his shot at making a “Chinatown,” a film noir about the brute force that created New York the way forces beyond Jake Gittes’ control shaped modern Los Angeles.
And Norton, who made characters with tics and afflictions, or who were affecting afflictions, a mainstay of his early repertoire, would play a detective with Tourette’s.
But one can appreciate the ambition, the scope the actor was going for, while acknowledging the material isn’t “Chinatown” and the actor/director’s reach exceeds his grasp when it comes to realizing it.
In mid-50s New York, Lionel (Norton) doesn’t call his tendency to blurt out sounds, words, phrases and profanity Tourette’s Syndrome. It’s “like having glass in your head,” he narrates, the implication being that the glass is broken and keeping your thoughts to yourself cuts and hurts too much to manage it.
Being asked “How’d she take it?” might get a “Tim-buck-TAKE it” response, and a lot more blurted words to boot.
He’s obsessive compulsive, too, worrying a sweater thread until he ruins it, opening and closing doors, repeatedly patting someone on the shoulder after initially making that gesture out of compassion.
And for the love of God don’t ask him to light your cigarette.
Lionel works in a small private eye agency that doubles as a car service. He lives with a cat his tics and blurts scare, and copes with gum (at work) or marijuana (to sleep), anything to occupy or dull his mind.
And aside from his off-putting condition, which everybody he meets excuses with “That’s OK” (New York is very tolerant, in this way, in the movie), Lionel’s got a fine mind. It’s why Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) employs him. Lionel, nicknamed “Freak Show” by his colleagues (Dallas Roberts and Bobby Cannavalle and Willis), has one of those total recall/video-rewind memories that only appear in the movies.
In 1954, Frank relies on Lionel to listen to a meeting where he’s left a phone off the hook so that Lionel can “record” it, at least in his mind.
And that’s important, because this meeting, a bit of finagling and working the angles with mobsters and connected “types,” is what gets Frank killed.
We know what that means in private eye tales (Jonathan Lethem wrote the novel this is based on). You solve the case “cuz he’d have done it for us.” Ignore the not-grieving-enough widow (Leslie Mann, the perfect blonde shrew), and figure out why Frank was following this “colored girl,” who turns out to work for a housing agency and advocacy group for the working poor.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is Laura, and even she doesn’t know how she fits into whatever’s really going on here. Like her boss (Cherry Jones), she knows “What happens to poor people in this city wasn’t news yesterday and it won’t be news tomorrow.”
There’s an all-powerful city planner with his fingers in various “authorities” and commissions that made things go in the days when the Dodgers were in Brooklyn. He’s plainly based on the megalomaniacal “visionary” Robert Moses, who steamrolled people and neighborhoods reshaping the city in that era, and he’s played by the menacing and mesmerizing Alec Baldwin.
Michael Kenneth Williams plays a scarred, scary jazz man with a sweet side, based on Miles Davis.
And Willem Dafoe is Mr. Exposition, the gadfly who knows how “things get done in this city,” the wild-eyed one who fills Lionel in on the sorts of stuff that’s about to happen that the dead Frank might have been wise to, which is how he became Dead Frank.
Norton makes the most out of his classic gumshoe with a tic, and plays those blurted insults, confessions or profanities for laughs. It’s not the most sensitive portrayal, but he never lets Lionel’s condition render him less than competent. And nobody under-estimates him because of it.
It’s a movie that lingers over its clues, and lets Lionel’s total recall reset them and slowly and deliberately figure this puzzle out.
That “slowly” business is a hindrance, because the picture follows the noir “Chinatown” template to a fault. That makes it predictable. That makes it play SLOW.
Lionel gets beaten up, repeatedly. Bad guys are always getting the drop on him. But even with Frank dead, they let Lionel live.
Scenes that don’t drive the action dress up the city in its post war grime and slums. The narration is borderline incessant, the sax-flavored jazz score de rigeur.
And the payoff seems almost quaint as it reaches for “Chinatown” shock value and scandal.
The upshot of all this, two hours and 24 minutes of vintage car chases, fire escape chases, punch-outs and puzzling over clues? “It’s NOT ‘Chinatown,’ Jake.”
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout including some sexual references, brief drug use, and violence
Cast: Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bruce Willis, Willem Dafoe, Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones and Alec Baldwin
Credits: Written and directed by Edward Norton, based on the Jonathan Lethem novel. A Warner Brothers release.
Running time: 2:24