Edward Norton’s gotten himself lost in time.
For one thing, the two hours and 24 minutes of "Motherless Brooklyn" feel longer than waiting for the Canarsie Tunnel to get fixed. (Goodnight, New York! Try the fish.)
For another thing, the actor-director-screenwriter has been trying to get an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 detective novel to the screen since … ah yes, since the book first came out. From a 2000 Guardian article: "The novel is being developed for Hollywood by ‘Fight Club’ star Edward Norton. Hunky screen star plays neurological disorder? Expect Oscars."
Norton deserves celebration for getting "Motherless Brooklyn" past the finish line. Twenty years of Hollywood willpower is nothing to sneeze at. A funny thing happened on the way to the cinema, though: Norton persuaded Lethem that the novel’s combination of late-’90s setting with Raymond Chandler sensibilities would feel too ironic in a movie. So, Norton transported "Motherless Brooklyn" to 1957. And then he removed most of the gangsters-and-gumshoes plot from the book. And then he replaced it with a (sadly) relevant tale of racism, gentrification and graft. And then he stuffed it into a slick, prestige-drama package. The result screened at Austin Film Festival on Tuesday and is in theaters this weekend.
To recap, we’ve ended up with a turn-of-the-millennium story reimagined as a 1950s-style noir, which feels like an overlong slice of 1990s Oscar bait looking for a 2019 message.
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For those who don’t remember reading "Motherless Brooklyn," the jist: Lionel Essrog (Norton) is the Tourette syndrome-beset protege of professional snoop Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), possessed of uncontrollable tics but impeccable memory. Lionel and the other members of Frank’s crew (Ethan Suplee, Dallas Roberts and Bobby Cannavale in the type of role God for which made a Bobby Cannavale) mostly do a little surveillance and some professional driving to make the books look good. But then Frank gets tangled up with bad men in pear-shaped dealings. He catches a bullet and dies on an operating table, but not before Lionel catches just enough cryptic clues to begin an obsessive search for who killed his mentor and why.
Now, for those who do remember reading "Motherless Brooklyn," here’s where that stops mattering: Along the way, Lionel gets tangled up in a vast "slum clearance program" conspiracy, crossing paths with an anti-discrimination crusader (Cherry Jones), a Harlem jazz trumpeter (Michael Kenneth Williams), an embittered gadfly (Willem Dafoe) and a sinister, all-powerful public official named Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin). Most importantly, he meets the brilliant, beautiful Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a biracial woman fighting against the displacement of people of color from their Brooklyn communities at the hands of the vicious, racist Moses.
To be clear, it’s not a bad thing to deviate from the source material in a page-to-screen adaptation; sometimes it’s necessary. In the case of "Motherless Brooklyn," it does make one wonder why Norton bothered to adapt the book at all if he actually wanted to tell a story based on real-life NYC power broker Robert Moses (the inspiration for Baldwin’s character), who accumulated unprecedented power in the city over more than half a century, reshaping it through development and segregationist tactics.
Since that’s where Norton wanted to go, Baldwin’s casting was an inspired choice. The actor famously plays Donald Trump on "Saturday Night Live," and there’s more than a little of the real estate shark-turned-45th president in Baldwin’s "Motherless Brooklyn" land developer. No squinting or puckered lips, but Moses Randolph demands loyalty and takes what he wants however he wants, whether that’s women or government appointments. At one rally in the movie, he decries "bright boys" with their ideals and praises the "doers" who "make this country great." This is not subtle stuff, but hey, we’ve got to process this Spam casserole of a political moment somehow.
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Even if this movie is "Motherless Brooklyn" mostly in name, it still is the story of Lionel Essrog, a character for whom Norton presumably has great affection. His depiction of Tourette syndrome goes about as well as you’d imagine: It’s a cartoonish punchline sometimes, a sympathetically handled depiction of disability other times. And then we get a regrettable scene, where it becomes clear that the primary story purpose of Williams’ mysterious Harlem musician is to compare Lionel’s "glass in the brain" to jazz. And then we all silently chew on our popcorn and stare at the floor.
Credit to the all-star cast, who are all game. Mbatha-Raw in particular lights the screen up even in its grayest slogs, and Dafoe does thankless work playing a character best described as an exposition engine who needs to invest in beard oil.
Full of classic cars, pitter-pat dialogue and people who call other people "cabbage head" and "mook," Norton’s cross-decade transplant of "Motherless Brooklyn" still ends up creating a gorgeous gumshoe world. For a passion project, though, it won’t inspire much fervor in those who watch it.