You have to give Edward Norton a lot of credit for the dedication he’s shown in bringing Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 crime novel Motherless Brooklyn to the screen.
For whatever reason, it’s taken almost the 20 years from when that bestselling novel was published to Norton to getting his film made. That fact might not be so surprising when you realize that the story is set amidst the housing development issues of ‘50s-era New York City – not quite as easy a sell as something based on a comic book, eh?
Norton plays Lionel Essrog, who works at a detective agency owned by his mentor Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). When Frank is killed, Lionel tries to find out what dirt Frank had uncovered about the city’s most powerful bigwig, Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), who has been using his poliices to drive the black citizens out of areas of Brooklyn. Many New York citizens, including Moses’ architect brother Paul (Willem Dafoe), are fighting against these plans, but Randolph will do whatever it takes to get his way.
At first glance, Motherless Brooklyn might seem like typical noir detective fare, but Lionel isn’t your typical private dick, suffering from a Tourette’s-like syndrome that gives him inconvenient tics, shouting inappropriate things at the most inopportune times. Although the brain-related issue causes Lionel constant problems in social situations, he has a sharp mind otherwise that makes him a useful detective, things like being able to remember everything he hears. It was more than a little strange watching this shortly after seeing Joker with Joaquin Phoenix’s equally disconcerting condition. The biggest difference is that Norton makes Lionel an extremely sympathetic character, one the audience can both relate to and easily root for.
While Norton doesn’t necessarily try to ape the noir styles of ‘50s movies, which would have been perfectly appropriate in this case, he does find a way to keep the viewer interested in Lionel’s journey, as he finds clever ways of uncovering information that moves him closer to finding Frank’s killer. In some ways, you might be able to refer to Motherless Brooklynas “soft-boiled noir.”
In many ways, Norton has ably created a time capsule of New York City during those times similar to Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk last year. Clearly, they’re both working from respected novels, but that doesn’t always a good movie make.
In this case, Norton adapted Lethem’s book himself, and the amazing ensemble he was able to pull together for this piece is a testament not only to how good that script is but also to how well-respected Norton is to his peers as an actor. There isn’t a single weak link in the cast even with some of the odder casting choices like Leslie Mann as Frank’s widow. Many of the scenes in Frank’s agency are particularly entertaining as Lionel gets help in finding Frank’s killer from others in the agency like Bobby Cannavale’s Tony, who quickly steps into Frank’s vacant shoes; Ethan Supplee and Dallas Roberts as Danny, who has more sympathy towards Lionel than the others.
As Lionel tries to find out why Frank was murdered, he encounters many other interesting characters, including Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Laura Rose, a mysterious Harlem-based woman who has huge stakes in what Randolph is trying to do to the city but a major clue to finding Frank’s killers. She’s as sympathetic to Lionel as Danny, even though he lies to her, making her think he’s a journalist, rather than a detective.
It’s almost an hour before Dafoe’s character shows up, but he practically steals the movie from Norton with a beautifully emotional performance as someone with deep-rooted connections to both Randolph and Laura, who has fallen on hard times even as his wealthy brother thrives. Baldwin doesn’t have a lot of screen time, at least not as much as some might want or expect, but his scenes are similarly as powerful as Dafoe’s.
There’s a certain jazz to the flow of the storytelling, not just from the dialogue and its delivery but also from the actual jazz music featured prominently in the score. (I only realized much later that Michael K. Williams was playing Wynton Marsalis during a pivotal Harlem scene with Lionel.) Radiohead’s Thom Yorke also provides a beautiful song that’s quite effective in the way Norton uses it. You’d think it might feel out of place or maybe too modern, but that isn’t the case in the slightest.
Norton has found such a compelling way into telling the complex and layered story at the heart of Motherless Brooklyn. I do wonder how well the material might connect with those outside New York City, but there’s definitely certain elements to the movie that will indeed connect with all.
RATING: 8 out of 10
Motherless Brooklyn will close the 57thNew York Film Festival on Friday, October 11, and be released nationwide on November 1. Look for some interviews with those mentioned above sometime before then.