Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) is a private detective who works for Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) and suffers from Tourette's Syndrome. When his boss is shot and killed, he resolves to solve the murder and brings him into the orbit of Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), a terrifying power-broker in New York and Laura Rose, a lawyer fighting the institutional racism of the city's planning laws and how it's breaking communities apart.
If you know your noir, there is something achingly familiar and probably a little bit too earnest in 'Motherless Brooklyn' for your taste. It borrows heavily and liberally from the likes of 'Chinatown', but it doesn't necessarily offer up a new examination of it or even try to play with the genre in a different way. It's so straight, so down-the-line in and of the genre that you'd be forgiven for thinking it was made twenty years ago. Even bringing in Norton's character, a private eye with Tourette's Syndrome, doesn't really provoke anything original from it either.
It's not to say that it's boring, or that it's not entertaining. Quite the opposite, in fact. Norton's writing, directing and performance are all balanced and pitched on the idea that it's a straight-up noir with no pretenses to it. It venerates the genre to a point where it's trying to play along the same notes, following them perfectly right up to the crescendo and beyond. That reverence is both its strength and its weakness - it's well-made, it has the look and charm, but you've seen it before.
Norton does give it his all in this, and no doubt the cast he's assembled are there because they want to work with him and are there for the script. It's meaty stuff, dealing with institutional racism, '50s post-war America, toughness and masculinity, but keeps it ripping along with such pacing and such heavy dialogue that you're never really given a moment to rest. That's probably the point, as Norton's addled character fills in every bit of silence with his monologue like he can't help himself.
Alec Baldwin gives a terrifying performance as Moses Randolph, a dead-eyed, growth-at-any-cost marshal of New York's next phase that stands like a shadow to John Huston's arch-capitalist of 'Chinatown', Noah Cross. Baldwin plays it with a deftness and a presence without hamming it up, and it's the supporting characters around him that build it up. Likewise, Gugu Mbatha-Raw takes what could have been a bland enough role and turns it in something affecting and compelling, though her arc is somewhat left unresolved by the end. Willem Dafoe, meanwhile, does the wide-eyed crazy with ease, while Bruce Willis turns in an effective cameo with a solid effort, but not much else.
Despite the strong cast and the best intentions by all concerned, 'Motherless Brooklyn' is an enjoyable but far too familiar journey into neo-noir territory. That it's done this straight on without a shred of irony or cynicism to it holds it back. Taking on such a stacked genre and making something original can be done while honouring its legacy. Just look at 'Knives Out'.
Still, 'Motherless Brooklyn' has its moments and they're hard-earned by a cast and a writer-director trying to tough it out in a landscape that may have moved on from this level of earnestness.