Edward Norton has been on something of a career resurgence lately. Almost a member of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, his then-pompous nature resulted in his dismissal from the franchise, to say nothing of being confined to a host of straight-to-video films for a few years. Now, in 2019, he brings himself back to the silver screen in front of and behind the camera for the first time since his brilliant 2000 debut, Keeping The Faith, with an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s noir novel Motherless Brooklyn, one that is a proud success, but not without a key misgiving.
In 1950’s New York, a Tourette’s-stricken man, Lionel Essrog (Norton), orphaned at a young age and a victim of abuse, is now a partner in a detective agency. The roof, such as it is, comes falling down on himself and his comrades when the leader of the pack, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis, Red) is murdered while on the hunt of a major case. Despite having little to go on, Lionel makes it his prerogative to bring Frank’s killers to justice, which entails a massively corrupt politician (Alec Baldwin, Glengarry Glen Ross), a victim of a housing crisis (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Belle), a mysterious informant (Willem Dafoe, The Lighthouse) and a story that will blow the city’s darkest secrets wide-open.
While the credits say this film is adapted from Lethem’s novel, Norton’s screenplay takes one major liberty with the text — that of resetting the time in which the story is set. The book is a product of the time it was written in, the 1990s, so the change from then to the 50s is quite baffling, to say the least; it almost renders the film a generic clone of films like Chinatown, but just almost. Norton delivers on his vision both as director and actor — he portrays Lionel not as a tragedy deserving of pity, but as a brilliant mind unrecognized in his time, and he plays his disability with respect and accuracy, as evidenced by the fact he actually consulted the Tourette’s Association of America for instruction and their blessing on the project. He clearly isn’t in this project for a hammy grab at an Oscar. As director, Norton moves the film at a brisk, clipping pace, stopping to muse only where necessary, keeping the film moving tautly, even at a 2 hour 28 minutes runtime. One could also argue (and I will) that relocating the movie to the 1950s requires more work to recreate the time and is a harder route to take than a 1990s setting, and Norton’s crew goes above and beyond in their delivery of that – from time-accurate subway cars to a recreation of how Penn Station used to look, this is an eye-candy binge of the best caliber, far beyond just vintage clothing styles and historical vehicles.
The supporting cast is in as fine a form as ever — Dafoe continues to prove his worth to the acting profession in his character’s strength and duplicity; you’re never really sure of who or what he is, and too many great actors still can’t get duplicity right in their characterization. Baldwin plays villainous Moses Randolph as a sick sadist with no care for his fellow men — autobiographical, no?
Willis, another vastly underrated quantity of an actor, while not entirely present in the flesh in this film, is the driving force behind this story — what time he has on the screen is as a principled man who functions as Lionel’s moral compass; when he goes, Lionel has next to nothing to go on, both in emotions and his work, and when Ms. Mbatha-Raw appears as activist Laura Rose, he finds greater purpose in his growing love for her — Mbatha-Raw plays Laura as one of the few shining lights of truth in a dark, uncaring world, and far from either an atypical damsel in distress or femme fatale that plague noir films.
Motherless Brooklyn may not please fans of the novel owing to its time displacement, and its anti-sensationalist performances won’t get it any Oscar nods, but I feel its embellishments and changes bring it right between my two favorite freely adapted films — David Lean’s Great Expectations and Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz. Further, I can safely say as a person with Asperger Syndrome who’s seen his fair share of ghoulish portrayals of disabilities (don’t see also: Cuba Gooding Jr., Radio; Jacob Tremblay, Wonder), this is probably the most respectful portrayal of a disabled person since Rain Man, and like that film, this doesn’t fall prey to tired tropes about such conditions. Bravo, Mr. Norton; your return is most welcome.