I love a good pulpy novel sometimes, and exactly a year ago, I picked up Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, published in 1999, completely unaware that an Oscar-nominated actor had been trying to bring it to the screen for the past two decades. It just sounded like a fun read, wherein a detective with an unnamed tic disorder similar to Tourette’s Syndrome attempts to solve a murder. While the story itself didn’t wow me, I enjoyed the first person point of view of a man who appears to burst at the seams in order to formulate words and ideas. The novel had a giddy rush whenever we took a peek into our protagonist’s mind.
Ed Norton, who writes, produces, directs and stars, has radically steered away from the book, changing the time period from the 1990s to the 1950s, and basically jettisoned everything which occurs after the inciting incident. In many ways he has come up with a more compelling, more relevant story, but it’s all wrapped in the all-too familiar tropes of a film noir.
- Voiceover narration. Check.
- Moody, Edward Hopper style cinematography. Check.
- A beautiful, mysterious woman. Check.
- Classic cars which go “Awooooga” when you hit the horn. Check.
- An underbelly of corruption our hero can’t begin to comprehend. Check.
It seems as if he wanted to make his own Chinatown or L.A. Confidential and decided to shoehorn the bones of the novel into the genre to satisfy his itch. With an incredible cast and a look at how New York City developed into the city we know today because of racist development policies, Norton has made a film worth seeing. Its punishing length, however, merely serviceable direction, and a too light tone keep it from crossing over into the classic territory of the great noirs.
Norton plays Lionel Essrog, one of a quartet of former orphans “adopted” by Frank Minna (Bruce Willis in a warm turn) to work at his detective agency. After an amusing slow speed chase, someone ends up dead and Lionel and his cohorts, played by Bobby Cannavale, Dallas Roberts and Ethan Suplee, get to work to solve the crime. With limited clues, Lionel, who soon breaks from the pack and works alone, leans into his disorder and photographic memory to go down the rabbit hole of NYC corruption.
Along the way, he meets a black female attorney named Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who fights the injustice of urban planning wrought by Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), based on Robert Moses, a real titan of NYC, who presaged the rise of the Donald Trumps of the world. The film provides an invaluable history lesson of the city which will prevent you from ever looking at its bridges the same way again.
With fine, memorable turns from Leslie Mann, Willem Dafoe, Michael Kenneth Williams, Cherry Jones, it’s still Baldwin who delivers the best performance in a blazing, scary turn not seen from him since Glengarry Glen Ross. He’s a classic villain who thinks his actions are for the greater good even as he spouts racist ideology, abuses women, and tramples all over human rights. Remind you of anyone currently occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?
Norton brings a sweet energy to his detective, allowing us to simultaneously empathize and stand in awe of his character’s special gifts. He makes for quite an original romantic lead, giving his scenes with Mbatha-Raw a special kick. He stands up for what’s right, but in true noir fashion, the steamrolling ahead of someone’s twisted version of an urban utopia cannot be stopped. Instead, Essrog makes a low key, low stakes decision in the end. As such, the film lacks the bitter nihilism of its predecessors.
In an interview with Norton at the screening I attended, he claimed a more foreboding ending would not go down easily in these tense times. This may be true, but it leaves us with a slightly upbeat, toothless film. I still recommend it for the troublesome past it resurrects, along with an engaging story and game cast. Norton takes a big swing here, but I can’t help but thinking this would have resonated more from a character and story perspective had it remained set in the 90s. Norton, though, made a film lover’s decision and gets major points for shining a light on the ugliness of a city’s history. Unfortunately, noir is meant to be dark, and this film sidesteps the defining characteristic of its genre. It looks like noir, but, to paraphrase the classic, “Forget it, folks. It’s not Chinatown.”
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. Motherless Brooklyn gets a 0 out of 50. Bobby Cannavale’s character makes a limpwristed motion at another character, but nothing comes of it. Despite this being an overstuffed film, it could have used a gay character to underscore the tough lives many of its characters lead.
By Glenn Gaylord
Motherless Brooklyn opens wide across the US on November 1st.