'Motherless Brooklyn' Review: A Beguiling Riff On 'Chinatown' For New York City [NYFF]

Edward Norton's adaptation of Jonathan Lethem's novel took over twenty years to bring to the screen. But while delays like this are traditionally to a film's detriment, it actually works in favor of Motherless Brooklyn. The distance allowed by this time in development leads to a movie that is likely significantly more mature and thematically rich than what Norton would have made in 1999.

As I suspected (and Norton confirmed in the film's press conference at NYFF), the initial draw he felt to the material had to do with the actorly challenge of portraying a private investigator with Tourette's syndrome. The role of Lionel Essrog represents the kind of bauble designed to appeal to an actor's vanity, a character racked with internal conflict that manifests in a physical way. If the film existed as little more than an apparatus to prop up this showy performance, it would have clouded out the real metaphorical value of Lionel as he slowly pulls back the veil on corruption in 1950s New York City.

As it plays now, Norton's performance represents one of the least interesting parts of Motherless Brooklyn. It's a bit of a nerve-wracking high-wire act watching an able-bodied actor attempt to replicate a disability – it only requires one mistake to push a film into the territory of Simple Jack, the parodic failed Oscar bait title from Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder. Judging by some crowd reactions at my screening, some seemed to feel the film goes there. If anything, Norton plays Lionel a bit like The Narrator at the end of Fight Club, a bit jittery and disoriented by an unknown force wreaking havoc inside his mind.

Norton the actor proves less of an attraction in Motherless Brooklyn than Norton the director and writer. (A counterintuitive takeaway, I must admit – although I do adore his directorial debut, Keeping the Faith, and stop to watch it every time it's playing on cable.) His film makes for a somber, plaintive, and clever twist on the film noir. Taking significant liberties with Lethem's novel, beginning with changing the setting to mid-century America, Norton frames Lionel's gumshoe exploits within a wistfulness for a city – and country – lost.

The inevitable point of comparison for the film is Chinatown. Both stories follow private eyes whose investigations turn from a casual incursion into a complete unraveling of endemic corruption. To state the obvious, Motherless Brooklyn is not quite at the level of the seminal classic that Roman Polanski made in 1974. Lionel's discursive journey from sniffing out the circumstances surrounding his boss's death into the dark heart of the local politics of segregation and stratification, while fascinating, simply cannot compare to Robert Towne's airtight Chinatown script. Norton is never short on ideas and intrigue, but his adaptation tends to lumber along in fits and starts rather than building consistent momentum.

But perhaps more than resembling the form of Chinatown, Motherless Brooklyn matches the spirit of the classic. Both films debuted into a nation gripped with the fervor of impending impeachment and, by glancing backwards into American history, reflect back their disillusionment. Yet while Chinatown maintains a consistently nihilistic tone (as encapsulated by the iconic final line), Motherless Brooklyn refuses such sweeping pessimism. "Hopeful" does not quite capture Norton's sensibility, but the events of the plot push Lionel towards the character Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an invention of the film. She's definitely underdeveloped relative to other figures in the story, a limitation of Norton as a screenwriter, because Laura's worth to the story comes less from who she is and more from what she represents.

Laura presents a stark contrast to the moral rot Lionel encounters at every turn, and her grace provides a reason to persevere when tempted to give up on an entire corrupt system. Of course, he loses faith in elected officials after witnessing the depths of their depravity in selling out New York City to the highest bidder. In a manner telling of their power, Lionel also begins to doubt the goodness of the average citizen by extension. If they can buy off the rich and write off the poor so easily, the success of their schemes to change the very composition of New York by manipulating real estate proves how little agency people have.

It's here where the meta-casting of Alec Baldwin as the film's villain, Moses Randolph, proves such a stroke of genius. It's more than guilt by association through the actor, who beams into households throughout the year as a prominent parody of Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live – Baldwin delivers multiple shudder-inducing lines that recall infamous episodes in recent history like the Access Hollywood tape. With Baldwin as conduit, Norton connects the imperfect past of Motherless Brooklyn to our fractured present day. Baldwin plays both the symptom of the current American malaise as Trump while also portraying the root causes of our fraught moment here – racial animus, abuse of power, naked corruption, and undue influence of business.

However clumsily Norton arrives at his conclusion, Motherless Brooklyn effectively locates several American pathologies. Democracy can easily become a toothless concept in a society that does not view its exercise as an active process. Wealthy urbanites can easily overlook, if not tolerate entirely, the unjust treatment of their neighbors so long as they feel the government will marshal resources to benefit people like them. Rather than shrug in the face of these tough truths, Norton pushes ahead and tries to do something difficult: resist, sacrifice, honor shared values, and avoid cynicism.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10