It is 1950’s in New York. Three men are preparing for a secret operation. One will be going upstairs for a meeting. Another will be listening in from the pay phone across the street. And a third will be waiting in the car. Lionel is the one on the phone. Apart from his quirks, he has an incredible memory. He makes an ideal detective.
Motherless Brooklyn, based on a novel by Jonathan Lethem, comfortably sits in the category of a crime film with its murder and mystery. But it has a sense of originality around its central character. Instead of a typical tough, heavy drinking detective, he’s a sober fellow who suffers from turret syndrome. He doesn’t curse hostilities as much as phrases that border on nonsensical.
The character might be comical at times but the story has heavy themes and moves around a labyrinth of mystery. After the murder of a colleague, Lionel is assigned by his team of private eye’s (which include Bobby Cannavale in a supporting role) to investigate the case. Lionel remembers the dying words of his colleague which make him suspicious about a Jazz nightclub. One of its trumpet players has a daughter named Laura Rose, a leader of the housing committee in racial discrimination who reveals injustices in the city’s planning. And as Lionel gets closer to uncovering the truth behind his case, there are henchmen who warn Lionel to stop snooping around.
Edward Norton plays Lionel with a natural ability for illustrating behavior. Like his roles in Primal Fear and The Score, he can imitate special disorders. Yet in some moments, he is challenged to make it appear realistic instead of a display. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is Laura who begins to sympathize with Lionel. Willem Defoe is a former engineer who publicly protests against city plans. There is also a solid performance by Alec Baldwin who gives impassioned speeches about getting things done immediately. No points for guessing who his inspiration might be. And Bruce Willis has a brief appearance.
The cinematography by Dick Pope captures the mood of jazz night clubs and relaxed evening shots of the Brooklyn Bridge. The directorial debut by Edward Norton has an understanding for setting and characterizations, but one wonders if he was confident about its pacing and editing. It runs at a questionable length of 160 minutes. Norton has a firm grasp on the subject matter and has an intriguing story to put on screen. Some work in the cutting room would have made it a more impressive picture than it already is.