On the surface, Edward Norton’s long-gestating adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn appears to be one of the most indulgent vanity projects to come out of Hollywood in years. It’s an overlong anachronism buoyed by an intermittently laughable central performance, aiming for Oscars but, if the trailers are to be believed, landing squarely in Razzie country. But in execution, Norton has crafted a charming and all-too-earnest throwback. Sure, his reach exceeds his grasp, but it’s not a mile-wide miss as one might surmise.

Lethem’s beloved novel follows Lionel Essrog, a private eye’s assistant with Tourette’s trying to solve his mentor’s murder. The book’s brilliant proposition of a gifted writer exploring the well-worn, first-person detective perspective through a character whose brain is constantly contorting words and thoughts into puzzles makes it such a singular triumph. It’s clear that in Lionel, Norton saw the role of a lifetime and an opportunity to show off his directing chops, but he also bit off more than he could chew.

Were this a straight adaptation of the novel, set in the late ‘90s or even transposed to present day, Norton would have an uphill battle to fight with the book’s noir textures being at odds with a more modern setting, since so many neo-noirs are typified by irony and detachment. Instead, he rewinds the clock back to the mid ‘50s, and in doing so, also sought to backdoor adapt Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker,” the seminal biography on real life, corrupt city planner Robert Moses.

Now, instead of a clever and complex detective story about a gumshoe battling his own verbal tics to avenge a dead friend, he’s also got a historical drama about the systemic racism at the heart of New York City’s design. These two film halves, taken separately, are engrossing and largely well executed. Norton proves a capable filmmaker, with clean composition and pacing hitting all of noir’s big beats, seamlessly blending the drama and comedy in a truly audience pleasing way. His passion and verve for the subject matter proves suitably fiery in the film’s second half, when the mystery takes a backseat for an extended lesson in political tampering and disenfranchisement.

But as brilliantly as the two books are stitched together at the conceptual level, their mismatched nature causes the film serious structural problems, as all the film’s momentum in the whodunit side careens to a screeching halt when the audience has to contend with the depressing and knotty backdrop behind the film’s central murder. For a film that already has a colorful and dense cast of supporting parts, each ably filled by a murderer’s row of character actors, whole subplots and intriguing asides fall away to focus on Alec Baldwin’s Moses Randolph, the fictional stand-in for godfather of modern NYC.

Baldwin’s performance is one of his best in years, shorn of all the snark and laziness of his “SNL” and late period supporting work. He’s an absolute force as Moses, an unapologetic, self-made man Ayn Rand would love, with an on-screen physicality as brutish as his methods. He even steals the show from Norton, who despite writing, directing and starring in this project, delivers a performance that repeatedly winds up too showy to feel sincere, even when it is.

Norton gives Lionel Essrog his all, finding a way to turn his condition into lighthearted background comedy so it doesn’t get between the audience and Lionel’s charming sincerity, but in packing in so much of the book and so much extra from his research, the movie doesn’t always give its protagonist the necessary room to breathe and grow. Norton has put more into this project than any other ten roles on his CV combined, but this is still a feature film.

Perhaps as a prestige format miniseries for a cable channel or streaming platform, the mystery and the history that inspired it could function more freely together, giving every side character their due. But in this final product, the two-and-a-half-hour run time feels too jam-packed to congeal into something more than the sum of its parts. That said, when it’s really moving, the film’s mystery is sharp enough to keep genre fans happy, even through all the discursions. It’s just a shame most average viewers will have difficulty looking past Norton’s actorly extra-ness to get at the narrative’s meaty themes, especially given how much it took to get this film made. Norton may never get a chance to redeem himself.

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