Edward Norton acquired the rights to Jonathan Lethem’s novel, Motherless Brooklyn, in 1998 but didn’t finish writing the script until 2012, by which time Lethem had published another six books. Filming would finally commence in February 2018 but a fire on set and resulting lawsuits set the project back by a further nine months. It would be August, 2019 before the film made it to a cinema audience, who generally liked what they saw.
I can’t decide whether Norton should be chided for his slowness, or praised for sheer persistence. There are plenty of occasions when novelists have sold the rights to a story that stays forever on the shelf, so later is obviously better than never. It’s a small miracle that a project which took so long to complete has turned out a much tidier piece of work that might have been imagined.
Lethem set his tale in the 1980s but Norton has pulled it back to 1959, largely because he felt the characters seemed too old-fashioned for comfort, but also so he could introduce a new villain in the shape of an unscrupulous real estate tycoon loosely based on “master builder” Robert Moses, who changed the face of New York City in the mid-20th century. Before you cry “Ah-ha!”, Norton has already said the election of Donald Trump in 2016 galvanised his commitment to the film. It’s probably not coincidental that the evil real estate developer, Moses Randolph, is played by Alec Baldwin who impersonates Trump on Saturday Night Live.
The story is a latter day film noir, in which organised crime and political corruption dance their familiar pas-de-deux. When Norton set aside the lead role for himself he was 39. Today he is 50. If we’re not overly conscious of his age that’s because the character, Lionel Essrog, is one of literature’s more unusual private detectives. Lionel suffers from Tourette’s syndrome, a condition that makes him blurt out odd things, twitch violently and compulsively touch people and objects. The silver lining of this condition is a prodigious memory that enables him to recall every word of a conversation and every detail of an encounter.
Lionel owes his job as a private investigator, to one Frank Minno (Bruce Willis), who took him, along with his fellow employees, Gilbert, Danny and Tony, from an orphanage and put them to work in his office. The story begins with Frank trying to squeeze some extra money from a heavy group of clients, while Lionel and Gilbert (Ethan Suplee), wait in the street outside.
The caper goes completely wrong, ending with Frank expiring in an emergency ward. Lionel sets out to find the killers and investigate whatever shady deal was going down. This leads him to a jazz club in Harlem, then to a public meeting where residents of poor black neighbourhoods are protesting against planning decisions that threaten to displace thousands of people. The prime mover behind the relocations is the brutal Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) who effectively controls Town Hall.
The opposition is being led by activist, Gabby Horowitz (Cherry Jones), and her offsider, Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), whose father, Billy, owns the jazz club. At the same meeting Lionel meets Paul (Willem Dafoe), who rails angrily against Moses, but will later be revealed to be his brother.
Lionel is drawn to Laura but his Tourette’s symptoms have made him a very cautious suitor. Nevertheless he gets close enough to get into trouble at the club, being rescued by a trumpeter (Michael Kenneth Williams), who bears more than a passing resemblance to Miles Davis. The action grows increasingly tense, but Norton manages to avoid the worst clichés of any David v. Goliath confrontation.
At almost two-and-a-half hours, Motherless Brooklyn, is a little too long and too methodical in the way the story unfolds. It’s not a film to keep viewers on the edge of their seats but it’s consistently engaging – a crossword puzzle with violent interludes. Norton may not set our pulses racing but he is good on detail and has produced a script laced with just the right amount of humour. No hard-boiled detective can afford to be without his wisecracks but there are too many crime films in which characters babble like stand-up comedians.
It’s the twitches and sudden expostulations that make Lionel so compelling. His anarchic brain makes him blurt out obscenities, free association rhymes, and thoughts he’d rather keep hidden. People tend to under-estimate him, falsely assuming that his condition means he’s a half-wit.
Lionel’s attempt to get justice for his fallen mentor, Frank, is soon subsumed by the greater story of civic corruption and discrimination. He recognises that ordinary people are powerless in the face of Moses Randolph’s determination to have his way. He sees the way the poison has spread through instruments of government and the forces of law and order, to the point where resistance is almost futile.
Norton has no radical solutions to the problem, focussing instead on Lionel’s efforts to keep Laura safe. If we associate Moses’s contempt for legal institutions with that shown by Donald Trump, it sends a pessimistic message to those who worry about the rapid degradation of the rule of law in the United States. In an old-style mystery the danger lurks in the shadows, but when politics gets involved it comes blazing from the hustings.
Directed by Edward Norton
Written by Edward Norton, after a novel by Jonathan Lethem
Starring Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, Bobby Cannavale, Ethan Suplee, Cherry Jones, Dallas Roberts, Bruce Willis, Michael Kenneth Williams
UK, rated M, 144 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 29 February, 2020