There are two things to know about Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn. One is that this is a film that is in service of a great novel by a director who knows how great that novel is. Two is that this is a film about great acting by an actor who knows what makes acting great. These two things don’t always go together. Not all actors know good books. Not all good books make great movies or even good movies. Sometimes the writing is just too big and weighty and its broad loftiness holds the film down, never giving it a life of its own because the words are just so beautiful – who wants to cut any of them?
Edward Norton took 19 years to bring this film to life. 19 years of a career in an evolving Hollywood film industry. The book — Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem — has been described as a “hip post-modern novel,” three words that should really never be used together in a sentence, but it’s unavoidable in this case, apparently. To his credit, Norton has removed much of that and placed it where it actually belongs — deeply embedded in the rich traditions of American film noir. In so doing, he has reset the story in the 1950s (you can tell by the cars and the hats). Although not strictly a noir – which ordinarily requires failure at humanity’s end – it’s enough of a pulp fiction to wear the title proudly. Norton himself plays Lionel Essrog, a detective with Tourette’s whose mentor (Bruce Willis) is murdered, setting off a twisty, Chinatown-like mystery.
The thrust of the film is the idea that New York City was being run by racist overlords who are evicting black and Latino families to make way for highways or more lucrative real estate developments. Alec Baldwin gets another chance to play the Trump-like figure who is destroying the city’s diverse neighborhoods to achieve his insatiable grab for power. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays the femme fatale of sorts that Essrog becomes involved with. Baldwin has the film’s most quotable moment near the end explaining his definition of power.
And yes, you can’t help but think of John Huston in Chinatown, or Jack Nicholson or Faye Dunaway. Motherless Brooklyn echoes Chinatown, as it does The Big Sleep and dozens of others. But it parts ways dramatically with Polanski’s film, which famously dead ends in not just tragedy but in the arrogant, foolish choices of its protagonist. The flip here is that Essrog, the reluctant investigator, is the opposite of Nicholson: he’s working with a major disability that makes him stand out in a crowd, prevents him from being cool enough to get the girl – like Bogart or Mitchum could do. Norton, and Lethem of course, both intend to upend the detective/pulp/noir genre with this hero who can barely get out a sentence and embarrasses himself almost always.
The focus of the film, then, is partly the plot, but it’s mostly this idea that having a disability is an obstacle that doesn’t exclude you from still being the hero or the smartest guy in the room. Much will be made of Norton’s bringing this character and this disability to life. It takes some getting used to, for sure, but eventually the film and the performance finds its perfect rhythm.
Motherless Brooklyn is yet another film at Telluride that Hollywood rarely makes anymore. It’s an ensemble piece made by an actor showcasing actors. The script is both Lethem and Norton’s interpretation of Lethem. A lot of old-fashioned isms pop up in the movie here and there to remind us of how things actually were back then as opposed to how we’d want them to be. How that will play with today’s audiences is anyone’s guess.
Norton has made a film that just works. Any effort to portray someone with Tourette’s Syndrome risks coming off as blatantly bad, but here the gambit pays off. Though it takes some getting used to, eventually – as with most of his performances – he carries it off. The Norton we know completely disappears and then we’re watching the character and we’re immersed in the story. The film manages to not be preachy when it so easily could have been. As Motherless Brooklyn reaches back in time to explore racism and New York City’s history, it also brings us urgently back to right now, both in how we look at politics and leadership, what offenses we’re willing to accept, what ideals are still worth fighting for.
The film takes its time getting where it’s going but it’s well worth the ride.