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.