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'Motherless Brooklyn' review: Gorgeous-looking, beautifully acted film noir

Edward Norton as Lionel Essrog in "Motherless Brooklyn."

Edward Norton as Lionel Essrog in "Motherless Brooklyn."  Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures/Glen Wilson

PLOT A private eye with Tourette's Syndrome tries to puzzle out who killed his partner.

CAST Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin

RATED R (some violence and language)


BOTTOM LINE Actor-director Norton delivers an engrossing and stylish retro-noir.

A single word keeps leaping from the mouth of Edward Norton as Lionel Essrog, the just plain odd hero of "Motherless Brooklyn." The word is "If!" — with an exclamation point because Lionel, a private eye with Tourette syndrome, barks it uncontrollably. As Lionel moves through New York City circa 1957, trying to solve the mystery of his partner's murder, "If!" becomes his mantra.

To most people, it's just a noise. "Bless you," responds a young receptionist.

Based on Jonathan Lethem's 1990 novel, "Motherless Brooklyn" marks Norton's second directing effort, following his slight but charming comedy "Keeping the Faith" in 2000. What took him so long? "Motherless Brooklyn" is a gorgeous-looking, beautifully acted film noir with a richly detailed script and sensitive direction from its star. It embraces the cliches of its genre but also reworks them, nowhere more inventively than in Lionel, whose nervous energy and uncooperative synapses make him one of the least likely gumshoes in cinema history.

Nicknamed Freakshow even by his friends, Lionel has found his place in the offices of Frank Minna, a big-hearted detective (played by a brief but moving Bruce Willis). After Minna ends up dead, Lionel searches for clues, traveling from the jazz clubs of Harlem, where he'll meet the beautiful housing-rights activist Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), to the grand offices of the Borough Authority, led by Moses Randolph, a none-too-subtle stand-in for master builder Robert Moses (played with masterful non-subtlety by Alec Baldwin).

There are obvious nods to "Chinatown," from the overarching plot to the minor detail of Lionel swiping a page from a library volume, but "Motherless Brooklyn" feels more like homage than knockoff. Norton is terrific as Lionel, whose mortifying syndrome also gives him a photographic memory and a deep empathy for society's outsiders. Several fine actors shine in small roles, notably Bobby Cannavale as Minna's successor and Michael Kenneth Williams as an unnamed jazz trumpeter. (Wynton Marsalis provides the solos.) The postcard-perfect cinematography, from Dick Pope ("Mr. Turner"), turns Lionel's circuitous journey into our guided tour of post-War New York City. There's even a convincing CGI re-creation of the legendary old Pennsylvania Station.

In keeping with noir tradition, "Motherless Brooklyn" ends on a note of ambiguity. There's closure — but New York, with all its monuments to beauty, ambition and injustice, still stands. 

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