As producer and director, actor Edward Norton has reached back to the style of 1940s private eye films to give us a story about power and corruption with “Motherless Brooklyn,” shown at the 57th New York Film Festival prior to its commercial release. In addition, Norton plays the lead character, Lionel Essrog, who, with Tourette syndrome, has a prominent nervous tick with which friends and foes alike have to deal. At times this leads him to erupt with foul-mouthed language, which becomes amusing rather than vulgar.
“Motherless Brooklyn,” is what Lionel is called as a result of his having been an orphan adopted by private detective Frank Minna, played by Bruce Willis, for whom Lionel works and has great affection. When Frank is gunned down on a job and whispers a clue before dying, it falls to Lionel to follow through on the case.
The intricate plot, along lines of old-fashioned film noir and set in 1950s New York, is detailed in a screenplay written by Norton and Jonathan Lethem, based on Lethem’s book. The story with typical twists and turns and lots of action is challenging to follow.
The villain is Moses Randolph, played menacingly by Alec Baldwin with his customary powerful screen presence. Giving him the first name Moses is a giveaway linking the character to the late New York Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who wielded power in his determination to enhance the city with elaborate building projects. The film’s Moses wants to tear down poor and black neighborhoods to achieve his shady goals and will go to any lengths to succeed. In addition, as the film reveals, he harbors a major secret.
Among those opposing him is Laura Rose, a young, light-skinned African-American woman played by the talented and intriguing Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who lives over a Harlem jazz club and with whom as the plot spins Lionel becomes close. This is also a film loaded with goons, violence and extreme danger to Lionel as he goes about his sleuthing. Meanwhile, nailing down the detective office is Bobby Cannavale as Tony Vermonte.
Norton gives an outstanding, colorful performance as the afflicted but persevering Lionel, making the most of the opportunity. As a director, in addition to successfully filling supporting roles with the right actors, he gives the film the noir look, and he has achieved some excellent settings with the aid of digital technique, creating, for example, the look of the old Penn Station.
The film is constantly absorbing, partly because of the performances, but also because of the need to concentrate so hard to understand all that is unfolding. A Warner Brothers release. Reviewed October 15, 2019.