20 years in the making and the film adaption of Motherless Brooklyn is finally here. Triple threat Ed Norton serves as writer, director, and star of this highly stylized film noir rendition of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel of the same name. Unlike its printed predecessor, Norton’s film takes place in the 1950s, whereas Lethem’s crime novel describes a 1990s Big Apple. Some resistance from the author could have been expected, but according to Lethem, when Norton asked for his input, he said: “Just run with it.”
And Edward Norton did just that. For two decades the artist researched the New York City of the 1950s and its place in history with politics, race, community displacement and power struggles interwoven – the major components that make up this crime drama. Edward Norton plays Lionel Esrogg, a junior detective with Tourette’s syndrome that is determined to find the truth about his mentor’s (played by Bruce Willis) murder, all while uncovering unsavory truths about New York City’s powerful and disenfranchised. Joining Norton in this dramatic ensemble are acclaimed actors: Alec Baldwin, as the powerful, money-hungry and bigoted developer, Moses Randolph intent on bamboozling anyone and any institutions that get in his way of seeing his projects through (loosely based on actual New York developer, Robert Moses). Baldwin’s casting and interpretation of Randolph is quite apropos and authentic as his portrayal of Trump has been well received by the public and condemned by the president; and well, extremely timely.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Laura Rose, a mixed-race lawyer and activist intertwined in this crime story is fantastic. Mbatha-Raw and Norton have great chemistry on-screen and there’s a beautiful connection their characters convey with an unspoken recognition of the struggle each has endured within a less-than accepting society. Rounding out the cast with electrifying performances are Willem Dafoe as Paul, Moses Randolph’s more humane, and less corrupt brother and Michael K. Williams (The Wire, Boardwalk Empire) as the trumpet man with keen situational awareness.
Edward Norton has a gift for portraying dimensional characters. He can go from 0 – 100 instantaneously, from self-deprecating to exuding complete confidence without hesitation; his Academy Award nominations for Primal Fear and American History X speaks to this. It’s a given. The audience will root for underdog, Lionel Essrog, to defeat the villains in Motherless Brooklyn but what is most compelling about Norton’s brilliant portrayal of Lionel’s disability is the way he outsmarts those who believe he’s no match for them with grace, humility and humor. And as the audience, we buy it.
The cinematography (Dick Pope) and set design (Kara Zeigon) conjures ups a romanticized nostalgia moviegoers crave. Manhattan and Brooklyn streets littered with 1950s Cadillacs and Chevys in an array of models and colors is a sight to behold. At first glance, you might think you’re in a tourist attraction in present day Cuba, but no, it’s the extraordinary production team that made this era come life with beautiful visuals. The film is lengthy but worth sitting through and witnessing wonderful storytelling. Motherless Brooklyn comes out tomorrow, November 1st. Click here for showtimes.