By Susannah Gruder
Dir. Edward Norton, USA, Warner Bros.
While the best views of Manhattan are visible from Brooklyn, to get a really good look at Brooklyn you need to do a little more legwork. Some say the borough is best seen from a moving train car above ground. Others believe youâ€™ll have better luck from the sloping hills of Greenwood Cemetery. Either way, itâ€™s not a place thatâ€™s easy to pin down. The latest cinematic effort has come in the form of Edward Nortonâ€™s Motherless Brooklyn, an adaptation of Gowanus-born writer Jonathan Lethemâ€™s 1999 detective story told from the perspective of a P.I. with Tourette syndrome as he navigates intricate layers of corruption between Carroll Gardens and the Upper East Side. In this adaptation, a passion project written, directed, produced by, and starring Norton, heâ€™s stripped Lethemâ€™s outer-borough opus for parts, literalizing the novelâ€™s allusions to hardboiled noir storylines and devices by setting it in the 1950s. Not stopping there, heâ€™s done away with Lethemâ€™s more understated plot and villains and inserted the unwieldy history of city policies that sped up gentrification, complete with a caricatured Robert Moses stand-in played with SNL-levels of nuance by Alec Baldwin. In attempting to say something meaningful about race and politics in the cityâ€™s biggest borough, Nortonâ€™s fallen into the same pattern as some of Brooklynâ€™s real-life real-estate developers and city plannersâ€”getting rid of what made the source material so compelling in the first place, and adding his own personally convenient plotlines in the process.
The idea to turn Motherless Brooklyn into a movie germinated twenty years ago. As the story goes, ever since someone Xeroxed the actor an advance copy of the book, Norton has been fixated on playing protagonist Lionel Essrog, who calls to mind other characters with mental or physical afflictions brought to life in celebrated performances like Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, and Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot. Norton cites these examples specifically even today, in a recent New York Times interview displaying a nostalgia for a time when people made movies like theseâ€”epic, award-winning â€śunderdog stories,â€ť where you root for these heroes, â€śnot in spite of their affliction but because of it.â€ť Around the time Norton got his hands on Lethemâ€™s novel, he was embodying some of the most iconic and primal personifications of white male rage in powerfulâ€”and propheticâ€”shocks to the system like American History X (1998) and Fight Club (1999). At that moment in his career, Motherless Brooklyn would have been an about-face for Norton, an effort to recount the â€śuntoldâ€ť stories of New Yorkâ€™s displaced people of color, along with their rich culture (complete with a sojourn to Harlem to hear a radical thing called â€śjazzâ€ť). What he delivers is a film about a white man who attempts to expose the truth behind gentrification, with the help of a black woman whoâ€™s kind enough to teach him what it is and improbably fall in love with him in the process. Whether or not Norton is angling for Oscar gold, heâ€™s certainly using a tried-and-true formula that appeals to the Academyâ€™s liking for â€śwhite saviorâ€ť narratives.
Lethemâ€™s novel is written so cinematically that adapting it directly requires a filmmaker with a fully developed creative vision to interpret its anachronistic mix of present-day signifiers and classic noirâ€”a Motherless Brooklyn from Christian Petzold could have perhaps yielded interesting results. Norton doesnâ€™t investigate Lethemâ€™s motives, saying that â€śit could feel ironic if you had guys in our times talking like noir gumshoes.â€ť Likewise, on the page, Lionelâ€™s Tourette-induced verbal gymnastics are impressive, at once composed and completely off-the-wall. Regardless of his intentions, Nortonâ€™s spasmodic interjections seem to play mostly for laughs instead of engendering sympathy on the audienceâ€™s part.
Meanwhile onscreen, Lionelâ€™s physical and verbal tics are generally met with such placid understanding that itâ€™s unclear what kind of hardships heâ€™s faced that have made him such an underdog. Lionel spends minimal time detailing his backstory in voiceoverâ€”how his mentor Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) plucked him and three friends from an orphanage and trained them to be â€śMinna Men,â€ť carrying out shady tasks under the guise of a car service agency. When Minna is murdered in the first scene, thereâ€™s little explanation as to why this is so devastating for Lionel, and how Minna had become the parental figure he was missing, a significant element of Lethemâ€™s book. As Thom Yorkeâ€™s â€śDaily Battlesâ€ť plays on the soundtrack, Lionel drifts from the hospital where Minna died to his dimly lit apartment that overlooks the Brooklyn Bridge (a heavy-handed touch in an otherwise impressive production design by Beth Mickle). Later, musicians in a Harlem nightclub, including a Miles Davis-type (played by the excellent Michael Kenneth Williams, with trumpet solos recorded by Wynton Marsalis), riff on Yorkeâ€™s ballad again, spinning it into an intriguing blend of classic and contemporary jazz. These are stirring sequences, thanks in large part to Yorkeâ€™s otherworldly songwriting, and Norton would have perhaps done well to incorporate more modern-day touches in a film thatâ€™s otherwise firmly ground in the 1950s.
Working in genre can be an excuse to play into and explore clichĂ©s, but Nortonâ€™s limp tropes fail to contribute to a broader vision. Itâ€™s as if so much energy has been put into Nortonâ€™s depiction of an offbeat detective that every other character is a pastiche of overused traits and recycled lines. Itâ€™s a testament to Gugu Mbatha-Rawâ€™s performance that she manages to supersede her flimsy arc as Laura Rose, Lionelâ€™s guide through Harlem and potential link between Minnaâ€™s death and Moses Randolphâ€™s policies of displacement, carried out by his shadowy â€śBorough Authority.â€ť Laura is written to be a strong, self-sufficient crusader in the fight for fair housing. But when Norton takes her home after her father is murdered by the same people who killed Minna, you can predict that sheâ€™ll utter that line often heard from a seductive woman in mourning: â€śCan you stay with me for a while?â€ť Laura, unlike the complex and ever-evolving femme fatales of Lethemâ€™s novel, is eternally sincere, so when she says these words their ensuing romance feels too easy. Similarly, Minnaâ€™s brash and lively wife, Julia (Leslie Mann), is robbed of her entire storyline, given only two short scenes, which barely make use of Mannâ€™s considerable talents for playing volatile women, swinging from sober nonchalance in one exchange to unhinged distress in the next.
In an even greater missed opportunity, Norton oversimplifies the rich history of Robert Moses and the displacement of people of color that took place over his nearly 50-year career in New York City government. This is a story that begs to be told onscreenâ€”but not in the background of another. Clearly Norton has an appreciation for Robert A. Caroâ€™s masterpiece The Power Brokerâ€”Randolphâ€™s turbulent swearing-in ceremony and its aftermath are lifted directly from the bookâ€”which leads one to wonder why he didnâ€™t throw his efforts behind a full-fledged biopic. Baldwin imbues Randolph with uncomfortable holdovers from his Trump persona, and his character is ultimately reduced to a predator along the lines of Chinatownâ€™s Noah Cross.
Norton evidently would like Motherless Brooklyn to be for New York what Chinatown was for Los Angeles, and his effort to dramatize the inevitable cycles of urban corruption into a genre framework as Polanski did is an admirable one. Still, it was hard to ignore the irony that the filmâ€™s New York premiere took place at Lincoln Center, the Moses-backed project that displaced thousands of families, mostly Black and Hispanic, from the neighborhood that used to be Lincoln Square. Moses knew ours is a society that prizes convenience above all, and while we might abhor everything Robert Moses stands for, weâ€™ll still use the highways and bridges he built to get to the parks and beaches he designed. In what feels like an earnest attempt to highlight overlooked narratives from the cityâ€™s past, Motherless Brooklyn ends up bulldozing its way through history.