Edward Norton is arguably Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic movie star, a description that will find pushback in some circles for two reasons: Norton doesn’t present as a “star” and his idiosyncrasies aren’t apparent in all the work he’s done. Motherless Brooklyn, a kind of vanity project that Norton has been trying to launch for many years, makes good on this description for various reasons but also points up the problems that the actor-director-screenwriter has trouble seeing through the haze of his ambitions. Since I haven’t read Jonathan Lethem’s source novel I have no opinion about Norton’s decision to change the setting from 1999 to 1957, though given the central plot point of a grasping, corrupt New York city planner modeled after Robert Moses (Alec Baldwin), it at least makes logical sense. However, all the attendant noir elements feel a little too on-the-nose when they are located in an era when film noir was at its historical apex as a form of expression.
Norton plays Lionel Essrog, who is called Motherless Brooklyn by his mentor, private detective Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), because Essrog was an orphan. In fact, Frank effectively adopted Essrog and several other young men (a great Bowery Boys’ club that includes Bobby Cannavale, Ethan Suplee, and Dallas Roberts) as gumshoe apprentices. Essrog, however, is the star for his photographic memory, which appears to be a kind of compensatory quality of his Tourette’s Syndrome, which causes him to erupt in outbursts of Freudian verbiage on occasion. Though a gimmick that Norton pulls off with his usual lack of grandstanding, this physical tick manages to make the period detective cliches a bit more interesting, since Essrog’s subconscious can be read by almost anyone with a discerning sensibility.
When Minna is killed after a mysterious meeting with some dodgy clients, Essrog takes it upon himself to find the killers, pretty much without his partners, who have other, more personal matters to attend to. Essrog’s investigation leads him to City Hall and New York’s urban renewal controversy, which involves the Baldwin character, Moses Randolph, trying to evict black tenants from public housing so that he can seize the property for richer developers and his own road projects. Consequently, we get a scrappy grass-roots, anti-development organizer in the Jane Jacobs mold (Cherry Jones) and a related sub-thread that brings Essrog into Harlem where he hooks up with a young black activist (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and a jazz trumpeter (Michael Kenneth Williams).
Regardless of Lethem’s aims, Norton clearly sees the material as “Chinatown”-worthy, and, unfortunately, he treats it accordingly. But whereas Robert Towne’s original script for that classic noir was built from the ground up, organically, Norton’s has a makeshift quality owing to his determination to make the Moses connection worthy of a detective tale, and while it’s certainly a compelling conceit, it eventually comes across as forced, even though Norton is meticulous about crossing his wiseguy banter t’s and dotting his mystery plot development i’s. If anything, the movie is perhaps too ambitious, even bringing in a ringer in the form of Randolph’s estranged brother (Willem Dafoe), a real life circumstance that makes sense in this fiction and adds the shock element that made Chinatown so special but which also highlights how derivative the whole concept is. Motherless Brooklyn is masterfully mounted and peculiarly relevant as an anachronistic study of city politics and race relations. It’s the private dick angle that makes it less than convincing.
Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011).
Motherless Brooklyn home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2019 Warner Bros. Ent./Glen Wilson