Edward Norton’s second ever film as director – he previously helmed the critically acclaimed romantic comedy Keeping the Faith in 2000 – almost didn’t see the light of day. A passion project which has been almost two decades in the making, Motherless Brooklyn offers another chance for Norton to showcase his peerless acting chops as well as his writing and producing abilities.
Adapted from Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel of the same name, this ambitious hard-boiled neo-noir tells the story of a lonely private detective afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome who attempts to solve a murder and finds himself implicated in a political scandal in the process.
Although the book is set in contemporary times, Norton took the bold decision to set his film in the 1950s because he felt that the premise and dialogue lent themselves to an old fashioned hard-boiled story. However, this didn’t stooped him from broaching a number of timely and contemporary themes.
When his boss and mentor Frank Minna (Buce Willis) is shot and killed whilst negotiating a top secret deal in broad daylight, private detective Lionel Essrog (Norton) is devastated by the loss. Angry and with nowhere to turn to, Lionel who has photographic memory, attempts to painstakingly follow in Frank’s footstep and catch his killer.
Things are further complicated when Lionel finds clues left by Frank that lead him straight into the arms of Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a young African-American who works for a charity fighting gentrification and opposing the destruction of homes in poor and minority neighbourhoods.
Norton has given us a beautifully layered, smart and thoroughly engaging neo-noir that isn’t afraid of wearing its heart firmly on its sleeve from the get go. And while there certainly are multiple pace and storytelling issues here, there are also moments of pure and disarming tenderness that make up for any other shortcoming.
Edward Norton gives a truly extraordinary and visceral performances that sets him apart from the rest from the first moment you lay eyes on him. His depiction of what it’s like to have Tourette’s has to be seen to be believed. For her part, Gugu Mbatha-Raw gives a beautifully measured and underrated performance, demonstrating once again that she truly is the real deal.
Other notable perfomces come courtesy a frightfully rambunctious Alec Baldwin as the Trump-esque Moses Randolph, while Willem Defoe is on fine form as Paul, an enigmatic figure who appears to hold all the answer, but is unwilling to be parted from them.
There is way more than first meets the eye in this unique take on the noir genre from an actor-director-writer-producer you can’t help but root for. I loved its imperfections almost as much as its beautifully stripped down and ramshackle quality.