A 20-year passion project for writer/director/producer/star Edward Norton, “Motherless Brooklyn” is one of those strangely mesmerizing failures; it doesn’t really work, but it’s … something. Based, rather loosely, on Jonathan Lethem’s novel, it’s an overstuffed attempt at film noir, filled with beautifully photographed faces and nostalgic shots of New York. But perhaps Norton was too much in love with it all; as a movie, it’s just too much.
Norton’s screenplay takes Lethem’s novel (written 20 years ago, it’s set in a then-contemporary, pre-tech New York) and moves its characters to the 1950s, changing the plot accordingly. Lionel Essrog (Norton), its central character, is a man with Tourette’s syndrome — a disability that then didn’t have a name, and that Lionel describes as “like a piece of my head broke off and got a life of its own. Like living with an anarchist.” He works for, and feels passionately loyal to, Brooklyn mobster Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), and when his boss is murdered in the film’s early scenes, he’s determined to solve the crime. A complex web of a story spins out, involving a rich developer (Alec Baldwin), a beautiful housing activist (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a mysterious loner (Willem Dafoe) and a city on the verge of a new era, for good and ill.
Lionel is the noir stereotype of the lonely private eye — the achingly quiet apartment, the trench coat, the dark streets where he hides in the shadows watching people with more complicated lives. His condition, in which he blurts out sudden strings of words, makes him visible, to his dismay; he’s constantly apologizing, and Norton believably plays a man trapped inside rhythms he doesn’t want to hear. (In one sequence in a jazz club, Lionel’s twitches and utterances seem smoothed; they blend with the music.) It’s an interesting, careful performance: Norton doesn’t overplay the Tourette’s, but doesn’t do that movie thing where it only appears when needed dramatically — it’s always there, a constant staccato soundtrack.
“Motherless Brooklyn” is lovely to look at — the cast, in addition to their acting talents, all look great in ’50s styles — and I enjoyed the noir-y jazz of the dialogue. (“Everybody looks like everybody to me,” a bartender tells Lionel, who’s looking for someone in the shadows of a club.) But it’s easily half an hour longer than it needs to be, and it’s full of moments that don’t go anywhere. In one scene at Penn Station, the camera lingers on a chic woman, perched on her pile of suitcases in a gorgeous beam of dusty light. Is she someone we need to know? Nope, turns out she’s only background; another detail, in a film just too full of them. “Motherless Brooklyn” needed, perhaps, a little less love and a little more ruthlessness.
★★ “Motherless Brooklyn,” with Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe. Written and directed by Norton, based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem. 144 minutes. Rated R for language throughout, including some sexual references, brief drug use, and violence. Opens Nov. 1 at multiple theaters.