I saw Motherless Brooklyn early last week. In theaters since the start of the month, it almost entirely evaporated from area theaters not long after I caught it, probably because it had tanked at the box office.
What a pity. Film noir is filled with works that didn’t attract audiences when they first came out, only to find greater appreciation at revival houses, on TV or DVD (e.g., Touch of Evil, Kiss Me Deadly). I hope that will be the fate of this homage to such great detective stories by the actor Edward Norton, who spent nearly two decades crafting this adaptation of the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award winner for fiction by Jonathan Lethem.
Unfortunately the movie was overlooked amid more high-profile releases such as Frozen 2 and The Irishman. But it is so lovingly and carefully made that I think viewers will be pleasantly surprised when they have a chance to see it at home—preferably at home on DVD, when a director’s commentary will show all that went into every frame of the film.
Besides writing the screenplay and directing, Norton has reserved the central role for himself: Lionel Essrog, whose Tourette's syndrome would, under normal circumstances, render him a “Human Freakshow.” But he has been rescued from the orphanage St. Vincent’s Home for Boys by Frank Minna (played by Bruce Willis), a private eye who, sensing potential in Lionel’s uncanny memory, makes him one of "Minna's Men" of field operatives.
When Frank ends up stabbed to death on a case gone awry, Lionel—partly guilt-ridden over his inability to prevent the killing, partly unable to stop scratching at this case with too many loose ends—determines to ferret out the truth.
The twentysomething years it took Norton to bring this project to fruition will, to some extent, stretch audiences’ belief that the 50-year-old actor could play an orphan not long out of such an institution, but his customary skill (and, at this point, still relative youthfulness) allow him to get away with this, barely. More problematic is his treatment of Lionel’s disability.
The film’s treatment of Lionel’s disability is problematic. It’s not because Norton’s intentions (i.e., depicting virtue as the result as a result of battling through a handicap rather than merely possessing it) are misplaced, but because his depiction is both far too incessant (a few times would be enough to give viewers an idea) and anachronistic (this being the 1950s, every character might normally be expected to recoil in confusion and disgust, rather than react with the understanding that several display here).
Norton has switched the period of this tale from the 1990s of Lethem’s novel to 1957 New York, a move advantageous for several reasons: the time is, more or less, the end of the black-and-white era that classic films in the genre evoked; it allows him to evoke thinly fictionalized real figures from the time, such as relentless urban visionary planner Robert Moses, community activist Jane Jacobs, and jazz great Miles Davis; and it represents, much like now, an era when massive development in Gotham could transform the city landscape, even as it disrupted en masse the lives of citizens in its path.
In depicting a villain with power over civic and commercial life that even the relentless private eye at its heart can’t begin to grasp, Motherless Brooklyn bears more than a slight resemblance to Chinatown, the Roman Polanski classic that fueled the neo-noir movement in earnest. As the Moses character (here called Moses Randolph, head of “The Borough Authority,” analogous to the builder’s actual agency), Alec Baldwin projects a bull-necked intensity possessed, from all accounts, by his real-life counterpart.
Beatings dished out by hoods, scary encounters with underworld giants, a hero with dangerous encounters with drinking and drugs: All of these elements of Motherless Brooklyn will be familiar to fans of The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, along with a hero who fulfills Raymond Chandler’s classic description of his protagonist in this fallen world:
“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.”
Lionel might be indefatigable, amid an environment every bit as threatening as the one in which Chandler’s Philip Marlowe trod, but he has an affliction that puts considerable distance between him and Marlowe or, for that matter, Sam Spade. He is forced, because of his case of Tourette’s, to blurt out words constantly unintended, garbled, obscene, and embarrassing.
Lonely and struggling to make sense of the thoughts (especially clues) in his head, Lionel is drawn to another gifted person marginalized by society: African-American lawyer Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a Harlem community activist who finds herself mysteriously threatened as Lionel’s investigation gains momentum.
As Lionel treks through locations as diverse as Brooklyn, Harlem jazz joints, the Plaza Hotel, the New York Public Library's main Midtown branch, and Washington Square Park, he seeks a place where he and Laura might be safe from the greed and corruption they find everywhere.
Although Norton makes particularly good use of assets probably required of film noir—often dark, somber cinematography (courtesy of Dick Pope) and a moody, evocative soundtrack (with contributions from the likes of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, Wynton Marsalis and Daniel Pemberton), he shines in what is, naturally, an inherent strength of his own—extracting the most from fellow cast members.
I can’t think of any actor here who is seriously miscast, and some particularly stand out: not just Willis, Baldwin, and Mbatha-Raw, but also Willem Dafoe (as Randolph’s brilliant ne’er-do-well brother), Michael Kenneth Williams (as the Davis-like “Trumpet Man”) and Leslie Mann (as Minna's none-too-sorrowful widow).
In moving the era of Lethem’s novel back four decades, Norton has transformed contemporary film noir into historical detective fiction. But his vision remains, for all that, a distant mirror on the greed and corruption of our own time—and the displacement that too often results from notions of “urban renewal.”
It would be a shame if that message becomes obscured at Oscar time, when Academy voters frequently nominate performers who take on roles featuring the physically and mentally challenged. Norton’s labor of love is worth honoring far beyond that limited perspective.