MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN ★★★★
(M) 144 minutes
Edward Norton wrote, directed and produced this smart, good-looking crime movie. And he increased the degree of difficulty even further by starring in it, too.
These talents should put him on the way to becoming a Hollywood powerhouse but as a producer-director, Norton likes to dwell in the land of the moderately priced feature with an emphasis on character rather than spectacle, and this makes him a member of an endangered species.
Edward Norton plays a man with Tourette Syndrome in Motherless Brooklyn.Credit:Warner Bros. Pictures
He’s had Motherless Brooklyn in the works for 20 years. It’s a controversially comprehensive re-working of a well-regarded 1999 novel by Jonathan Lethem, who raised no objections, we’re told, when Norton decided to roll back the book’s contemporary setting to Brooklyn in the 1950s. Some of the book’s fans have felt otherwise, becoming the film’s most vocal critics.
Nostalgia was not Norton’s only motive for the change. Nor was the fact that he thought Lethem’s hard-boiled dialogue was going to sound cheesy on screen in a modern context. A student of New York’s social history, he wanted to re-jig the story to explore the political double-dealing that shaped the city’s architecture and planning during a pivotal decade. His bad guys are developers and politicians with no time for kindly notions such as affordable housing and community spirit.
And if that sounds worthy, well-meaning and incredibly dull, I can only say that Norton makes it work, spinning it into a twisting narrative that, admittedly, does require your concentration. And why not? Roman Polanski’s equally demanding Chinatown wouldn’t have exactly sounded enticing if it had been sold as a drama about the politics of irrigation in California.
Norton’s hero, Lionel Essrog, a private eye with a small-time agency, is pitched into a labyrinthine political conspiracy when his boss, Frank Minna, is shot dead by mobsters in the course of a case in which he’s been involved. He’s left few clues but Lionel is determined to find his murderers. Played with admirable restraint by Bruce Willis, Frank has been his father-figure, the only person who’s shown any interest in understanding the effects of the Tourette’s Syndrome that has plagued him since childhood.
For readers of the novel this was one of its most potent and unexpected attractions. It describes Lionel’s co-existence with his Tourette’s, which he nicknames Bailey, with mordant humour and a lot of insight into the sensations it produces.
Norton’s translation contents itself with the broad outlines, although the film’s hard-edged jazz score, with its Wynton Marsalis trumpet solos, does make a direct connection with the tumult going on in Lionel’s head. But much of his life story has been sacrificed to that of New York and its boroughs. The compensation lies in the beauty of the film’s evocation of its era. Norton and his crew haven’t settled for the tobacco-stained tones that often prevail when movies take a trip into the past. They win you over by stealth with the symmetry of their compositions and the warmth of a palette that owes much to Edward Hopper’s New York paintings. The design team sought out the row houses and brownstones of Harlem and Brooklyn to point up the treasures that the city is in danger of losing. They even used a green screen and a studio set to re-create some of the Beaux Arts features of the original Pennsylvania Station as it looked before it was torn down in 1964.
And the film has a great villain in Alex Baldwin’s corrupt politician. Like Donald Trump, Baldwin’s Moses Randolph suffers from an acute case of monumentalism. He wants to build and re-build and never mind the people whose lives are left in the rubble.
As models of masculinity, Randolph and the unassuming Lionel are at opposite poles. Randolph is a wolf with no patience for those who stand between him and what he wants; Lionel is a terrier, blessed with a flawless memory for detail and an irresistible urge to make the most of it. But he’s constantly trying to overcome the nagging sense of inferiority which is his Tourette’s most damaging side effect. As unlikely screen heroes go, he’s one of the most engaging to come along in a while.
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