Imagine Rain Man meets Humphrey Bogart and you’ve got the eccentric gumshoe character that Edward Norton plays in Motherless Brooklyn, a film he starred in as well as wrote, directed and produced and which has the prestigious Closing Night slot of the 2019 New York Film Festival. Norton adapted his film from Jonathan Letham’s 1999 novel of the same name, changing the book’s gritty 1999 New York setting to a painterly 1950’s New York setting – an impressively ambitious if dubious decision (on an indie budget). “What is it like to be actor, director and producer?” asks someone at the Q&A session following the press screening. “It’s efficient,” Norton says, adding “My conversations with myself go very smoothly.” He goes on to explain that he wanted his film to be less like Reservoir Dogs and more like Citizen Kane, while managing not to claim himself comparable to nor give insult to either Quentin Tarantino or Orson Wells. Norton’s intelligence, sense of humor and earnest humility are also what define his character, Lionel Essrog, and make viewers willing to follow both Edward and Lionel on their odyssey through a mysterious, sometimes-confounding maze of murder, blackmail, deception and corruption. And they and you might even come out the other side.
This is a sprawling movie with large-scale ambitions and a design team doing a high-wire act… This is real cinema.
In the first scene, we are immediately confronted with the fact that Lionel suffers from Tourette’s syndrome, as we see Norton’s carefully studied depiction of the symptoms and hear Lionel tell us in voice-over, “I got threads in my head” – a metaphor that instantly connects Lionel’s mind to the complex weave of the story itself, which will unravel and tangle throughout the next 144 minutes. In defense of my opening conflation of the syndrome with the autism that afflicted Dustin Hoffman’s iconic character, I will note that according to professionals, “Tourette syndrome (TS) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) share clinical features and possibly an overlapping etiology” and each is sometimes misdiagnosed as the other. Tourette is a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary tics and vocalizations and often the compulsive utterance of obscenities or strange phrases. Not that this medical definition matters to the story.
What matters is that Norton has convincingly turned his neurologically impaired character into a smart, crime-solving, romantically-appealing leading man, rather than an oddball sidekick shuffling along next to handsome Tom Cruise. Lionel’s mental challenges are reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s Memento, although this character’s problem is more grounded in reality, which makes the story more than just a thrilling conundrum; the realism of both Lionel’s ailment and the historical details of the tale create genuine gravitas. This is one of many reasons to admire this film and Edward Norton in particular, despite the movie not entirely earning a designation as “masterful.”
But Helen Highly Prefers to watch an ambitious and admirable project not completely succeed than watch a clichéd, obvious, emotionally safe film that is as meaningless as it is overly lauded by the popular press (such as the Centerpiece film in this year’s NYFF). In his interview, Norton says he took inspiration from films such as Reds and Unforgiven, which “treat people [the audience] like adults.” Amen brother.
Lionel explains his condition in the film, saying “It makes me say funny things but I’m not trying to be funny” – as if speaking for Norton, who craftily scripts Lionel’s outbursts as clever commentary on the action as it unfolds, but without entering into the realm of comedy. Lionel also has super skills, such as the ability to precisely memorize information and conversations, even if he doesn’t fully comprehend their meaning at the time. And his obsessive tendencies send him on a relentless quest to solve the intricate puzzle of the story – a dedication greater than his fellow detectives (and realistically, most viewers).
My two cents regarding the team of private dicks employed at Lionel’s agency would be to cut out those largely superfluous mugs. After all, Bogart’s detective was a one-man operation, and that might have helped consolidate the complexity here. It is important, however, that the agency was initially owned and run by Lionel’s mentor and life-long friend, Frank Minna (played persuasively by Bruce Willis), who is murdered within the first few minutes of the film. The movie is essentially Lionel trying to track down Frank’s killers and understand how all the clues add up to something larger than anyone expects. The rest of the office team is expendable, as far as I’m concerned. But the “larger than anyone expects” story is part of the film’s larger problem.
This is where most of the film’s criticism is based – its long run time and unnecessary plot twists that are difficult to follow and at times seem to be telling different stories — too many unraveling threads. My initial argument against this sort of complaint is to remind viewers that two of this genre’s greatest classics, The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, had plotlines nearly impossible to follow and stories that didn’t seem to entirely add up. It’s all part of the nothing-makes-sense fatalism of this type of movie.
One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat. — Vincent Scully
But the issue is larger than that defense – for both better and worse. Norton’s “mash-up,” as he calls it, seems to rely as much on Robert Caro’s non-fiction, Pulitzer-prize-winning book The Power Broker as it does on Letham’s fictional thriller. Norton is interweaving two very-different books and stretching the boundaries of a classic genre; it’s a lot to handle.
In Norton’s film, Alec Baldwin (with his typical smarmy aplomb) plays Moses Randolph, a thinly veiled portrayal of Robert Moses, the “master builder” of mid-20th century New York. Moses was one of the most polarizing figures in the history of urban development in the United States. Caro’s book sealed his fate to be remembered forever as a ruthless scoundrel with a lust for power and a racist agenda rather than admired for his visionary achievements as a builder of bridges, highways and parks. (Moses also helped Frank Lloyd Wright get the NYC building permits to construct the long-delayed now-iconic Guggenheim Museum — a story detailed in a recent New York Times article as the museum turns 60 this month.)
Moses combined extreme corruption with enormous competence; at one point he simultaneously held twelve political titles, including NYC Parks Commissioner and Chairman of the Long Island State Park Commission, but as Norton tells us, Robert Moses (that is, Moses Randolph) was never elected to any public office. His power was based on brutality and elitism. In pursuit of planning for a better future, Moses ripped out entire neighborhoods – mostly minority communities. He was also responsible for the demolition of the once-magnificent Penn Station, in which a scene in Norton’s movie remarkably takes place, using genius-level special effects.
Norton even manages to work in the famous quote about the ruin of Penn Station: “One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.” There are many films that can be said to be love letters to New York City, but this one is nostalgic for its distress as much as its nobility. Norton wants us to know about all this dark and dazzling history, and that well-meaning ambition to scale up both his set design and his message are part of the film’s unfortunate downfall. He’s trying to make an epic morality tale, and he comes close to getting there, but… back to the history lesson:
Supposedly, Moses ordered his engineers to build bridges too low for buses from the city to pass underneath and reach Jones Beach – intentionally restricting the poor blacks and Puerto Ricans that Moses despised. Norton includes this incriminating detail from Caro’s book in his film and increasingly shapes his sleuth story around this tale of real-life Gotham conspiracy and corruption, which starts to feel enticingly like an east-coast Chinatown, full of sociopolitical implications. It’s all fascinating and compelling, until it gets too bogged down in historically-accurate detail.
For better or worse, this character experiences change, and even if it is sad change, there is a refreshing optimism in that twist. The time-loop stops here.
But then… a classic gumshoe clue of a discovered matchbook (!) found in Frank’s overcoat pocket leads Lionel to a Harlem jazz club named The King Rooster, where Lionel identifies a central figure in the fictional mystery – Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an attractive “colored-girl” community organizer who is daughter of the club’s owner. We get to spend a disproportionate but entertaining amount of time in this jazz club, where the music is wonderful, especially as played by a scarred-but-sexy trumpeter (with music actually played by New York’s own Wynton Marsalis). He confides in Lionel that his talent is actually the result of his own “brain affliction.” We’re back in the world of shadowy, sensual film noir. It’s terrific stuff.
The best scene in the film is when Lionel is with Laura at the club and we see that the erratic rhythms in his brain match the syncopation of the jazz music. Finally he is in his zone! Then, despite his awkward shyness, Lionel is forced to dance with Laura in order to protect her, and she quiets his Tourette symptoms by rubbing the back of his neck with her fingers (like his mother used to do, before he became an orphan and acquired the name “Motherless Brooklyn”). Aaw. It’s a rare, emotionally touching moment in a movie that wants to be full of heart but ends up being kinda talky and educational.
And I haven’t even gotten to the addition of William Dafoe, who is excellent as always. How can you not like a movie that includes William Dafoe? He plays a perfect noir-ish character — a surprise wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a moral dilemma, but his arrival in the story comes late and his full impact is obscured a bit by the whirlwind of so many other swirling questions.
The whirlwind becomes a tornado of complexity, picking up pieces of history, chunks of classic genre, hunks of New York architecture, broken branches of dramatic fiction, bent blue notes of jazz, drenched greens of Edward Hopper, a few gratuitous camera shots, at least one completely irrelevant scene, lots of bravado acting, fragments of politics, suggestions of social commentary, all mixing into an imperfect storm. But it’s a doozy.
If you’re an east-coast intellectual liberal, this film is for you. If you’re out for an easy Friday-night date movie… you might walk away with a bit of a headache. This is a sprawling movie with large-scale ambitions and a design team doing a high-wire act, which leaves plenty of room to trip and fall, alas. Still, there is more that deserves to be written about this film.
Here’s part of the beauty that Norton achieves: Like Bogart in all his film noir detective flicks, we see Lionel get beat up by strangers in the dark, wake up in places unknown, wrongly accused by the cops, and double-crossed on a regular basis. But this confused character, who is nicknamed “Freak Show,” starts with none of the tough-guy swagger of Bogart, and Norton’s development of his confidence and consciousness is wisely timed and skillfully paced, so that when Lionel finally tosses his hat and coat into the arms of the gun-toting henchmen of his dangerous adversary and says “Hold this for me, will ya sweetheart,” it’s a grand little moment; he’s gone full Bogart. But the movie doesn’t stop there.
In his combined roles of actor, writer, director and producer, Edward Norton has taken the well-worn, film-noir detective genre and elevated it. This is not a bleak, fatalistic tale. Norton’s freak-show character has blown past Bogart. Lionel won’t be back to make another dead-end detective thriller. For better or worse, this character experiences change, and even if it is sad change, there is a refreshing optimism in that twist. The time-loop stops here.*
This is a story about a man who learns for himself the relevance of morality and the definition of heroism. This is a movie that challenges us to rethink our apathetic habits and aim higher than self-preservation. It’s a traditional tale restyled for our times right now. (And yes, Alec Baldwin is playing Donald Trump. Alec Baldwin will never be able to stop playing Trump, and that’s okay too. This is another way for him to dig deeper into that archetypical persona, and it’s worth watching. He’s got a brilliant speech at the end of the movie that might be worth the price of admission in itself.)
Is the movie too long? Yes. Is it too complicated? Maybe. Is it too messy? Probably. Is it too grandiose? I refuse to say yes to that. I am inspired by Norton’s aspirations. What he achieved in 45 days of shooting, on a small budget, as an actor-turned-director, is impressive. Is this a masterpiece? No. But does everything have to be a masterpiece?
Here’s what this is: This is real cinema. Like the movies in the old days that were a special event, an adventurous outing – this movie is gorgeous to look at and has a reason to be. It’s not an insult to your intelligence or a waste of your time, like far too many movies are these days. Helen Highly Recommends you give this movie a chance. Root for Edward Norton. Root for William Dafoe. Root for Gugu Mbatha-Raw. You have every reason to feel good about rooting for this movie.
* Might I humbly suggest that I’d love to see Lionel come back and do a sequel where he’s a journalist and more closely involved with William Dafoe’s character?
Motherless Brooklyn opens in theaters Nov. 1st.
Watch the trailer below: