Edward Norton, whose first directorial effort (“Keeping the Faith”) was 19 years ago, chose an odd story to adapt and direct for his follow-up: “Motherless Brooklyn,” a 1999 novel by Jonathan Lethem about a Tourette’s-afflicted P.I. (played by Norton) trying to solve the murder of his boss and mentor (Bruce Willis). Adding to the curiousness of the project, Norton moved the setting from the present day (well, 1999) to the 1950s, then goes out of his way to make it seem relevant in 2019. For example, there’s a racist New York land developer played by Alec Baldwin who uses the phrase “I moved on her” to describe assaulting a woman and adds “You can do anything you want when you have power” — subtle things like that.
But infused with noir tropes like a non-mourning widow (Leslie Mann), smoky jazz clubs, and clues hidden in plain sight, it’s a satisfyingly twisty story in the “Chinatown” mold: corrupt city officials, surprising family connections, and the like. And while nothing really compares favorably to that masterpiece, Norton’s film doesn’t embarrass itself, either, as it gets into thorny issues of race, gender, and power. For his part, Norton portrays Tourette’s respectfully, though its significance to the story remains murky without the novel’s stream-of-consciousness narration. Willem Dafoe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones, and other recognizables add support to this curious addition to Norton’s résumé.
B- (2 hrs., 24 min.; )