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November 01, 2019

Denver Film Festival - Motherless Brooklyn


Edward Norton - 2019
Warner Brothers

I first read Jonathan Lethem's novel, the source of Edward Norton's film, about nineteen years ago, when it has first been published in the paperback edition. I reread the novel just prior to seeing Norton's film, serving as writer, director and star. What was contemporary at the time now seems nostalgic, taking place around 1998, before 9/11, before cell phones became ubiquitous, before Manhattan become almost thoroughly homogenized with chain stores replacing the various locally owned shops around town. Reading Lethem's novel now is almost an exercise in nostalgia for a past time. And I had to wonder if Lethem's hero, the young would-be detective with Tourette's syndrome, Lionel Essrog, would actually in some ways fits better in today's society, where you can't always tell whether a person is having a conversation on a blue tooth device, or is simply verbalizing an argument with themselves.

Norton has chosen to jettison most of Lethem's novel, keeping only a variation of the first chapter. The novel is relatively intimate, taking place over two days, with Lionel on the search for the persons responsible for the death of his boss, Frank Minna. Norton has chosen to backdate the story to around 1957, and make his own version of Chinatown. We now have the lone detective against the powerful movers and shakers of a major city, and family secrets that are at risk of being revealed. Much of the film's story is a fictionalized account of Robert Moses, the New York City planner who at one point was the head of twelve different commissions simultaneously. Moses was famous for his parks, and infamous for destroying neighborhoods with claims of eminent domain in order to build several highways to connect the four main New York City boroughs. Renamed for the film as Moses Randolph, Norton's character personifies the concept of the corruption of power. Simply making a good mystery film was not enough for the filmmaker.

Taking the film on its own merits, what Norton does right is the introduction of Moses Randolph, portrayed by Alec Baldwin. The first several appearances of Randolph are in long shot. His back is to the camera, or his face is hidden. Randolph's first appearance is of him swimming alone in a public swimming pool, a visual reference to Robert Moses' building of several public indoor pools during the Depression. Those first scenes are of a man who is both publicly well known, yet at the same time fiercely private, whose every step seems to accompany a kind of earthquake. Norton even includes a variation of Moses' relationship with his brother, Paul, also named Paul, in his film.

And as silly as this may seem to some, Norton also includes what may be the best point-of-view shot of a guy being knocked out. A familiar trope in mysteries and westerns, the camera takes on the viewpoint of a character being on the receiving end of a punch to the jaw. This is one time when such a shot was edited with such impeccable timing that it caught me by surprise.

As anyone who has followed Edward Norton's career since Primal Scream would probably agree to, he would be the most capable of playing the part of a man struggling with verbal tics. While Lionel in the film has some of the same kind of wordplay when the Tourette's takes over, it doesn't quite have some of the sense of humor in Lethem's novel. The novel also has a resolution that seems more realistic in view of Lionel's life, while Norton goes for an idealized Hollywood ending.

Also, if you are going to make a film that takes place in a past time that is amply documented, please don't ruin it with anachronisms. Nobody used the expression, "on point", or referred to their friends or coworkers by the first letter of their first name. If you are going to pour on various period details, please make sure all your characters are not using any contemporary idioms in their dialogue.

Had Norton made his film taking place at the time of Lethem's novel, we would also have possibly been treated to several songs by Prince. Lethem's Lionel refers to two songs, "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore" and "Kiss". While reading the novel, the film in my mind would have had other Prince songs wafting in and out of the various radios. And the film could well have kept within the spirit of Lethem's novel with end credits accompanies by "1999".

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 1, 2019 10:23 AM