Almost as soon as Jonathan Lethem’s fifth novel, Motherless Brooklyn, was published in 1999, Edward Norton got New Line Cinema to put up “a sum in the high six figures” to nab the rights, according to Michael Fleming, who was reporting for Variety at the time. Norton’s first order of business was to convince Lethem to allow him to shift the story of Lionel Essrog, a private eye nicknamed Brooklyn—he’s an orphan, too, hence the title—from 1999 to 1957. Norton tells Vanity Fair’s Katey Rich that the book “had a quality to it of an anachronistic bubble, of acting like ’50s gumshoes. I made the case to Jonathan that film is very literal, and I didn’t think I wanted to make something that felt like irony.” Last month, after twenty years of development, Norton’s adaptation—he also directs, produces, and stars—premiered at Telluride and screened in Toronto. Tomorrow, Motherless Brooklyn will officially close this year’s New York Film Festival before opening in theaters on November 1. So far, reviews have been mixed.
Lionel struggles with Tourette syndrome, a disorder that riddles his body with tics and his behavior with the unpredictable impulse to blurt out the wrong thing at the wrong time. Norton tells David Marchese in the New York Times Magazine that “you instantly have this affinity with him, because you know him inside the calm center of his brilliant mind. And there’s also a great tradition of films, be it Forrest Gump or Rain Man or Good Will Hunting or A Beautiful Mind, which create an emotional alignment between the audience and an underdog whom you root for not despite their affliction but because of it. There’s a positivity in that.” It’s Lionel’s photographic memory and uncanny powers of deduction that have endeared him to his mentor, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis).
When Frank is killed, the other detectives in his office (Bobby Cannavale, Ethan Suplee, and Dallas Roberts) are horrified but reluctant to look into it. Lionel decides to go it alone, and his investigation has him crossing paths with activists (Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Cherry Jones), an engineer (Willem Dafoe), a jazz musician (Michael K. Williams), and a powerful political operator (Alec Baldwin), whose name, Moses Randolph, is meant to echo that of the “master builder” of New York City in the mid-twentieth century, Robert Moses. “Motherless Brooklyn borrows as much from Robert Caro’s astonishing Moses exposé The Power Broker as it does from Lethem’s novel,” writes Variety’s Peter Debruge. Moses’s transformation of the city is “the secret history of modern New York,” Norton tells Katey Rich, “with all of its kind of institutional racism and the devastation of the old city from neighborhoods right up to Penn Station, perpetrated at the hands of an autocratic, almost imperial force, who was intensely antagonistic to everything we think defines American democratic principle.”
In his review for Vanity Fair, K. Austin Collins writes, “On its face, Motherless Brooklyn may be story about power. But its heart and secret engine is a lesson in empathy . . . I miss this kind of story—told with jazz and intrigue, coal-black streets and smoky silhouettes—and Norton’s filmmaking evokes it tenderly.” At Slant, though, Jake Cole finds that the film may be “bathed in dirty smears of yellow light that mimic chiaroscuro technique, but Norton’s cutting patterns are distinctly modern-seeming, rife with seemingly endless shot-reverse shots that throw off the rhythm of the pulp dialogue by so obsessively cutting to each individual speaker. Norton’s too-neat visual coverage is indicative of the film’s greatest failing. At its best, noir leaves enough unsaid that, even if a mystery is solved, one is left with the distinct impression that nothing has been fixed. Motherless Brooklyn feels altogether too tidy.” For the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, despite “its flaws, it is a substantial and distinctive drama,” and he adds that the studio that eventually got it made, Warner Brothers, “has been renowned for precisely this kind of gritty, violent picture since Hollywood’s golden age.”
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