For the 20 years since he read an advance copy of Jonathan Lethem's 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn, Edward Norton has labored to direct an adaptation and cast himself in the lead role of Lionel Essrog, a private detective with Tourette syndrome. His tenacity in seeing the project through to the end is extraordinary, but the years haven't diminished the fundamental challenges to bringing Lethem's book to the screen. For all the questions raised about Norton's decision to turn back the clock and set the action in the 1950s — a decision that actually pays dividends to some extent — he can't solve the most common problem with any adaptation: The internal cannot be made external.
The unique experience of reading Motherless Brooklyn is staying inside Lionel's head, confined to its tics and loops while also witness to the odd rigors that make him such an excellent detective. As an actor, Norton makes a five-course meal out of Lionel's affliction — which, frankly, resembles Dustin Hoffman's autist in Rain Man too closely — but all his considerable passion and wit cannot blanket the film in the character's voice like it does in the novel. He's more like a novelty player in a mediocre municipal noir that's a copy of a copy of Chinatown, like an East Coast cover of L.A. Confidential.
Like many detective stories of its kind, Motherless Brooklyn starts with a small crime that metastasizes into a much larger, more insidious civic cancer. In 1957 New York, Lionel works under private detective Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who's brought him under his wing despite his annoying outbursts and cognitive hiccups. When Minna gets murdered for reasons unknown, Lionel and the other surviving "Minna Boys" at the agency are left to pick through the mystery, but only he has the dedication and the mental discipline to splash around in increasingly murky waters.
The mystery of Minna's death brings Lionel to a clash between black residents and city planners, focused on a Harlem nightclub called The King Rooster, which has become a hub for Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a lawyer and community activist who stands between the neighborhood and the forces of white gentrification. As Lionel and Laura become partners — with possible benefits — they plunge headlong into a clash with rapacious visionary Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) and get aid from a scruffy malcontent (Willem Dafoe) who seems intent on stopping Moses' plans, albeit for more mysterious reasons.
The rationale for bringing Lethem's story to the '50s is sound on several important fronts, mainly in pinpointing a time in the city's history when planning for the future involved running real estate scams, deploying low-level goons to do the dirty work, and using any means necessary to steamroll opposition from minority communities. Norton also uses the opportunity to soak in the atmosphere at a Harlem jazz club that benefits from the authenticity of real musicians like Wynton Marsalis playing on the stage. The film is keenly attuned not only to the devastating changes that can transform a neighborhood, but to the culture and the human beings who are victimized by it.
On a stylistic front, the '50s setting also gives Norton and his cinematographer, Dick Pope, the opportunity to turn Motherless Brooklyn into a neo-noir, evoking the hard shadows and bottomless cynicism of a postwar urban environment. It's always been a challenge to render a black-and-white subgenre in color, but rarely has a film failed so spectacularly to get the atmosphere right. Pope has done consistently superb work for director Mike Leigh, but his digital camera flattens the images and makes every scene overly bright, like looking at a bank of TV sets at a department store. Noirs are about exploiting offscreen space and directing the eye through lighting technique, but the action here comes through with damnable sharpness.
As for Norton as Lionel, it was always going to be difficult for his emotional life to reach full flower on screen, despite the vulnerability that draws good people like Minna and Laura to his side. He gives the type of performance where the technique is admirable but not invisible, and that's enough of a distraction to keep him at a distance. He does better in those solitary moments when Lionel works through evidence methodically and obsessively, like an itch that needs constant scratching until it finally goes away. His genius takes a fascinating shape, even if it's applied to a second-hand mystery that's unworthy of him.