Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn (Photo: Warner)

MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN
***1/2 (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Edward Norton
STARS Edward Norton, Bruce Willis

Initially, it seems like a stunt, a gimmick, a bald bid for an Oscar nomination. In electing to bring Jonathan Lethem’s novel Motherless Brooklyn to the screen, writer-director-producer-star Edward Norton handed himself a character who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome. But dash all memories of Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman or Sean Penn in I Am Sam. There’s depth in Lethem’s character and intuitiveness in Norton’s interpretation, and, consequently, there’s value in Motherless Brooklyn as both an interesting character study and a satisfying mystery.

Set in 1950s New York, the film centers on Lionel Essrog (Norton), who works for a detective agency run by his mentor Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). When Minna’s latest case leaves him dead, almost everyone is willing to move on, no questions asked — that includes Minna’s other gumshoe employees (Bobby Cannavale, Ethan Suplee and Dallas Roberts) and even his own wife (Leslie Mann, beautifully nailing her cameo). But not Lionel. He knows it won’t be easy to figure out who killed Minna and why, but he’s determined to avenge the only true friend he ever had. Lionel’s neurological disorder causes him to twitch violently and blurt out strings of words (seemingly non sequiturs to others but ones which make perfect sense to him), and this in turn causes many people to underestimate him and dismiss him. Yet this gives him an edge, since his social awkwardness belies a mental agility that allows him to remember everything.

Motherless Brooklyn is one of those films that engages in some heavy lifting with its labyrinthine plotline (think Chinatown or L.A. Confidential), yet the real pleasure isn’t so much its convoluted story (which occasionally buckles under its own weight) as it is in watching Lionel interact with all manner of characters. There’s the powerful Borough Authority developer (Alec Baldwin) who seems to hold the entire city in his grasp. There’s the mysterious figure (Willem Dafoe) who always turns up when least expected. There’s the sensitive activist (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who’s not fazed by Lionel’s mannerisms. There’s the jazz musician (Michael Kenneth Williams) who sympathizes with Lionel since he also has an overactive mind that can only be tamed by his music. And there’s that hulking henchman (Radu Spinghel), perhaps the most menacing oversized brute since Jaws tried to take a bite out of James Bond.

It would be easy to view Motherless Brooklyn as a vanity piece, and perhaps it is. Norton occupies multiple seats on the project (for all I know, the credits might have listed him as key grip and caterer as well), and his character appears in almost every scene. But most vanity pieces are easy to recognize because the star is generally captured in loving close-ups performing wonderful feats. True, Lionel is lionized for much of the film, but this treatment suits a character who values friendship above all else and who takes care to look out for the other little people like himself. As for those glamour shots, the wonderful cinematographer Dick Pope (a two-time Oscar nominee for Mr. Turner and The Illusionist, the latter starring Norton) avoids them altogether, preferring to provide the picture with a shady style that suits its murky milieu.

Forget it, Jake. It isn’t Chinatown. But on its own terms, Motherless Brooklyn carves out its own small corner in rich neo-noir territory.

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