Okay, so it’s a vanity project. And many of them do turn out disastrously. Some critics have judged this one to have similarly fallen flat on its face. Not this critic, however.
Edward Norton is screenwriter, director and lead actor in this sheeny, beautifully shot crime noir thriller. His adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s bestselling novel is clearly more a labour of love than an opportunistic move to hand himself the top three credits.
He plays Lionel Essrog a down-at-heel New York gumshoe with Tourette’s syndrome. Solitary, shy and obsessive, he has, all his life, been emotionally and financially reliant on Frank Minna, a tough, small time private eye (a meaty cameo role for Bruce Willis). When Minna is murdered in apparently inexplicable circumstances, Lionel, who has witnessed his death, sets out resolutely on a quest to solve the mystery.
Armed with an extraordinary gift of recall, he falls into bad company around the jazz clubs and dives of Brooklyn and Harlem. But brushing shoulders with hit men, hoods and shady dealers pales in comparison with his encounter with the city’s most dangerous man, the ruthless property developer and politician Moses Randolph, played with blustering relish by Alec Baldwin. Parallels with the current occupant of the White House are unavoidable, particularly when Baldwin launches into a vintage Donald-style rant about the aphrodisiac of power.
Valid comparisons have been made with Roman Polanski’s 1974 classic Chinatown, which used 1930s events as a means of tangentially addressing the state of the nation during the Watergate scandal. And like Chinatown, this narrative unfolds in a twilight world of smoky bars and gloomy interiors.
Not for the first time in his acting career, Norton takes on the role of a character with neurological difficulties. The early scenes in which his condition seems to render him singularly unsuited for his chosen career, feel irritatingly overdone. They do not bode well for the next 2.5 hours of this long, slow burn of a film.
But slowly, the audience is drawn into the sadness of his dysfunctional family background and the events which trigger his uncontrollable ticks and neuroses.
Ostensibly dapper in Minna’s well-cut coat and fedora, he cuts a frayed and hesitant figure, as he attempts to infiltrate the politics of a borough whose poor residents are ripe for racist exploitation and ethnic cleansing by Randolph and his grasping henchmen.
Apart from Baldwin and Willis, there is fine support from Willem Dafoe as a derelict no-hoper and the wonderfully low key Gugu Mbatha-Raw, as a social activist with a rich family history around the city jazz scene.
Although the novel is set in the present day, Norton has opted to relocate it to the 1950s, a period gorgeously captured by cinematographer Dick Pope’s burnished, sepia-toned colour palette and a score by Daniel Pemberton to drown in.
Sure, there are segments where the storyline feels laboured and uncoordinated, when Norton’s characterisation seems somehow too modern for the times that are in it, when you wish to God he’d get on with the job in hand. Some of the set-piece speeches are too much on the nose. But, ultimately, this big, lush movie reels in and holds the viewer, culminating in a satisfying, if slightly unlikely, happy ever after finale.