DEMAND AN END TO POVERTY THIS GENERAL ELECTION
TAKE ACTION
Film

Edward Norton's passion project Motherless Brooklyn is worth the wait

It languished for 20 years but but this stylish noir thriller won’t disappoint, says Graeme Virtue

Motherless Brooklyn Film

Never give up on your dreams. Admittedly, it’s not the usual takeaway from a flinty noir thriller. But Motherless Brooklyn, a long-cherished passion project from Edward Norton, directing his own adaptation of the 1999 novel by Jonathan Lethem, is an atypical gumshoe tale. It stands as a monument to the actor’s determination to get the damn thing made, even if two decades of creative incubation at Warner Bros – Norton acquired the film rights before the book was even published – clearly caused his pet project to mutate in some unexpected ways.

Back in 1999, Lethem’s novel was a contemporary NYC whodunit featuring a first-person narrator, Lionel, with Tourette syndrome. Involuntary outbursts might seem like a barrier to sleuthing but the smart, dogged Lionel was determined to solve a very personal case. This adaptation keeps the bones of the story plus the singular lead character but backdates the setting to 1950s New York and adds a thinly fictionalised subplot about underhanded urban redevelopment that targeted working-class non-white neighbourhoods.

If Lethem’s intent was to modernise and interrogate some noir tropes, rewinding the time period presents a more traditionally cinematic, almost romanticised view. Norton the director fills the frame with Sin City signifiers: dames and hoods, mooks and marks, dive bars and curvy cars. (And hats! So many hats.) Meanwhile, Norton the actor is equally industrious, reeling off voiceover narration and parcelling up a capricious suite of physical and verbal tics.

The plot involves picking at a typically scabby conspiracy. When veteran private eye Frank (Bruce Willis) is killed after tangling with the wrong people, his lonely protégé Lionel steps into Frank’s shoes to try to solve the case. Inevitably, it involves tracing a mysterious girl, Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), penetrating the toxic cloud of civic corruption surrounding a nominally great man – in this case, ambitious city planner Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) – and enduring a series of beatings at the hands of dead-eyed henchmen.

These are familiar notes but Norton offers some variations on the fatalistic theme, helped by a blue-chip ensemble that includes Willem Dafoe as an unravelling agitator, Bobby Cannavale as a peacocking co-worker and The Wire stick-up artist Michael K Williams as an impossibly cool trumpeter.

Norton has cited Chinatown and LA Confidential as his cinematic touchstones but Motherless Brooklyn feels a little too disjointed and convoluted to match their mythic quality. Another director might have streamlined the story, simplified the clues and compressed the two-and-a-half hour running time. But what’s the point of a vanity project if you don’t indulge your whims? Norton is so clearly enthralled by his fellow actors that he routinely lavishes time on their scenes. He seems equally enraptured by the band assembled by Marsalis for a jazz-club interlude, which becomes a sweet extended reverie as Lionel’s whirring neurology syncs with the hard-bop improvisation. It’s just a shame Motherless Brooklyn arrives in the UK hot on the heels of the superior Knives Out, another star-studded mystery aimed squarely – and rarely – at an adult audience. But for noir fans who associate the classic Warner Bros shield logo with a disreputable, anticipatory tingle, there is still much to savour.

Motherless Brooklyn is out in cinemas now

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
A world without cinema is a world I don't want to live in
Film illustration
Film

A world without cinema is a world I don't want to live in

Blur: To The End review – poignant new music film shows a band of brothers reunited
Alex James and Damon Albarn in new documentary blur: To The End
Film

Blur: To The End review – poignant new music film shows a band of brothers reunited

Why Sasquatch Sunset is so much more than just a gross-out comedy in Chewbacca drag
Jesse Eisenberg and Christophe Zajac-Denek in Sasquatch Sunset
Film

Why Sasquatch Sunset is so much more than just a gross-out comedy in Chewbacca drag

Netflix's Hit Man is what we used to call 'a good time at the movies' – but times have changed
Glen Powell in Hit Man
Film

Netflix's Hit Man is what we used to call 'a good time at the movies' – but times have changed

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know