Norton, who also wrote and directed the movie, based Motherless Brooklyn on Jonathan Lethem’s novel but transposes it to a film noir setting. He gives a bravura performance, swiveling like a man on a bar stool—stutters segue into lucidity and then to obscene jabbering and back again to lucidity. The performance threatens to overwhelm the story and become the story. In an age when people were shut away in asylums for unconventional behavior, how would Tourette’s really play out in the hardboiled world of gangsters and gumshoes?
However, the background for Motherless Brooklyn is drawn from reality. The swaggering yet strangely awkward Building Commissioner, Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin in full jerk mode), is based on an infamous public official. Robert Moses built bridges still crucial today but tore down swaths of New York from the 1930s through the ’60s to make way for “progress.” In Motherless Brooklyn, he’s a man of Pharaonic ambition and Stalinist ruthlessness. One of the film’s pivotal scenes occurs in Randolph’s cavernous office where the “master builder” confronts Lionel the dissident. Randolph was a true believer in his grand visions for the future, a high-rise utopia linked by freeways and built on his own will to power.
Randolph is depicted as addicted to control, not money, and yet is surrounded by a network of predatory real-estate swindlers and eminent-domain abusers. Their designs are hidden inside file cabinets of paperwork and public documents; their scheme suggests the plot of Chinatown changed from water to asphalt and transposed from the orange groves of L.A. County to the boroughs of New York.