“It’s like I got glass in my brain,” Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) laments in Motherless Brooklyn, more than once.
What he has is some form of Tourettes — a neurological disorder that makes him yelp and spasm and shout out comical, sometimes-obscene fragments of speech involuntarily. It’s not an ideal condition for a detective, or for any human being hoping to get by in a world that sees even small differences as a threat.
That may be part of the reason it took Norton, who also wrote and directed Brooklyn, nearly two decades to bring it to the screen; who wants a film-noir hero who can’t even control what comes out of his own mouth? Thankfully, Norton tempers the temptation to turn Lionel into a walking catalog of actorly tics and affectations, carving out space for the thoughtful, morally centered man who lives between the yips and twitches.
He also chooses to send novelist Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 source material four decades into the past, recasting the book’s then-modern setting in the sepia tones of 1950s New York — a terminally shadowy place of dames and trench coats and double crosses, populated by venal city officials and pug-faced thugs who think nothing of popping a guy in an alley and leaving him there to die.
It’s the murder of Lionel’s beloved boss and mentor, a brusque P.I. named Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), that sends him on a quest to figure out the who and why. The trail soon leads to Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), a ruthless, bear-chested construction magnate with deep ties to the mayor’s office; the feral-looking lurker (Willem Dafoe) who seems to know everything about him; and an elusive beauty from Harlem (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) whose fight against Randolph’s “slum-clearing” operations have put her at the center of some kind of bullseye.
The ghosts of Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett are everywhere here, but Roman Polanski’s Chinatown might be the specter that looms largest over Brooklyn, with its twisting (though in the end not quite knotty enough) tale of civic rot and questionable parentage. A man as devoted to story craft as Norton is no doubt knows that; working in tandem with veteran cinematographer Dick Pope and production designer Beth Mickle, he lavishes fond care on the movie’s careful scene-setting and first-rate actors.
If it all sometimes feels trapped in the amber of his good intentions, Brooklyn still casts a quiet sort of spell: a meticulously, lovingly made mood piece, full of empathy for the ones who can’t speak — at least not always the way they want to — for themselves. B
(Motherless Brooklyn is playing at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals, and will be in wide release Nov. 1)
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