Just before the credits roll on Edward Norton’s “Motherless Brooklyn,” a dame looks up to her unlikely protector and sighs, “It’s funny how things turn out.” She’s referring to the mystery that has preoccupied us for the previous two hours and change — a sprawling, ambitious tale of murder, blackmail and corruption in mid-century New York to rival “Chinatown” in its complexity, if not necessarily that brain-bender’s elegance or appeal — but she could just as easily be speaking of the journey Jonathan Lethem’s novel took en route to the screen.
“Brooklyn,” in this case, is the nickname for Lionel Essrog, aka “Freakshow,” a man with Tourette syndrome whose spontaneous tics and off-color verbal outbursts can prove embarrassing in public, but serve him well in the employ of a professional snoop named Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). For an actor like Norton, who’s made a career of high-wire roles — the stuh-stuh-stuttering schizophrenic of “Primal Fear,” the inside man who feigns autism to pull off a heist in “The Score” — Lionel represents both an enormous new challenge and an incredibly unique variation on the otherwise worn-out private eye archetype. Not since “The Singing Detective” have audiences gotten such an unconventional gumshoe, although the idea to build a classic film noir around him is all Norton’s.
Rather than following the blueprint of the book, which takes place in 1999, Norton plucks the character he wanted to play and flicks him back about half a century, to the 1950s, where Norton’s colorful Lionel is free to investigate another larger-than-life personality: Moses Randolph, a thinly disguised pseudonym for Robert Moses, the “master builder” of modern New York, who ripped out entire neighborhoods to make way for the bridges and highways that serve the city today. Moses was a visionary, but his disdain for minorities and the poor was mixed into the very concrete of his achievements: infrastructure as a form of racism.
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By the look of things, “Motherless Brooklyn” borrows as much from Robert Caro’s astonishing Moses exposé “The Power Broker” as it does from Lethem’s novel. In an ensemble that also includes such heavyweights as Willem Dafoe and Cherry Jones, Norton lands Alec Baldwin as the smarmy city planner. Baldwin can play these kinds of tycoons in his sleep, and while the fact that he does Donald Trump on “Saturday Night Live” may cause some to believe that’s who he’s channeling here, Norton has gone out of his way to make this about Moses. (Even so, one can’t help processing Moses’ monologue about power through the lens of the present.)
Cramming a message in alongside more plot than the movie can handle, Norton aims to educate audiences on the deplorable practices that undergird the Gotham we take for granted today. The trick, of course, is to wrap it up in a compelling detective story — which must have been an incredible logistical headache to make, relying on real New York locations, from Washington Square Park to Penn Station as it looked at the time. To keep our interest, he leans on Lethem’s invention of the twitchy eccentric who sees a loose thread and doesn’t let go until he’s unraveled the entire sweater: a metaphor for the way Lionel’s mind works.
In the book, Lionel is one of a handful of orphans (ergo “motherless Brooklyn”) whom Frank takes under his wing, grooming these kids to do his dirty work. Here, Frank is more of a benevolent mentor, but still shady enough to go and get himself shot in a side alley after taking a meeting with a handful of goons. Before Frank died, he said the word “Formosa” and something about a “colored girl” who might be the key to figuring out who killed him.
It’s Lionel’s job to solve cases, but for some reason, no one but he seems all that interested in sorting out this one. Frank’s girl (a helium-voiced moll played by Leslie Mann) leaves his detective agency in the hands of Tony (Bobby Cannavale), and though the place seems overstaffed, what with Gil (Ethan Suplee) and Danny (Dallas Roberts) also on the payroll, Lionel winds up investigating what happened to Frank more or less on his own.
Lethem has said that he didn’t know about Tourette syndrome before reading a case study by neurologist Oliver Sacks, and while the condition makes for a decidedly unique protagonist, the author twists it into a kind of eccentric superpower — which goes for Norton’s approach as well. “It makes me say funny things, but I’m not trying to be funny,” Lionel explains, describing his affliction as “like having glass in my brain.” OK, but he’s also single-mindedly obsessive and capable of memorizing facts and conversations verbatim, a kind of glitchy human computer that blurts out things like “touch it” and “tits.” Sacks would probably be the first to observe that, while Norton has nailed the physicality of the condition, his performance isn’t so much sensitive as it is narratively expedient.
Lionel’s mannerisms could have gotten obnoxious in a hurry, but Norton calibrates the performance so that the character remains unpredictable without becoming unbearable. We can see Lionel trying to wrestle his spontaneous disruptions into submission. Would such a character really have been so readily accepted in the 1950s? Hard to say, but Norton makes him charming by keeping the outbursts witty and well-timed, and because Lionel’s underlying personality is anything but hard-boiled. He’s more of a gentleman, which explains how he winds up getting close to Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the activist who holds the key to the case.
Laura lives in Harlem, above a nightclub that sets the tone for the film’s silky jazz score, but she spends her days fighting racial discrimination downtown, standing up to men like Moses. By comparison with the relatively straightforward California Water Wars that inspired “Chinatown,” the corruption at the heart of “Motherless Brooklyn” isn’t just about money. The mysteries of New York’s infrastructure choices make for a dense and talky history lesson, and one that audiences will need time to digest. That legacy includes stories about how Moses ordered bridges built low over the parkway leading to Long Island, intending to keep out the minorities who could only afford to travel by bus, and dastardly strategies used in the name of “slum clearance” to fool low-income families out of their homes. For all its audacity, even Lethem’s book didn’t dare to go there. It’s funny how things turn out.