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Noir adaptation misses the mark

Motherless Brooklyn's political messaging lacks nuance

Gumshoe Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) is afflicted with Tourette syndrome. (Warner Bros.)</p>

Gumshoe Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) is afflicted with Tourette syndrome. (Warner Bros.)

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/11/2019 (332 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In adapting Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn, screenwriter-director-star Edward Norton took extreme liberties. The main one was that he set the story in the mid-1950s to facilitate an old-leather look to the proceedings.

Movie review

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Motherless Brooklyn
Starring Edward Norton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw
McGillivray, Polo Park
14A
145 minutes
★★★ out of five

Shot by cinematographer Dick Pope, it looks like classic noir as guys in fedoras and knee-length overcoats start poking their noses where they don’t belong.

Fans of noir, including yours truly, are all in with that.

Still, this does not feel like an exercise in worshipping at the altar of genre.

The main feature of the novel is that its designated gumshoe Lionel Essrog is afflicted with Tourette syndrome. Given to explosive verbal tics, he is operating as an investigator before the disorder was widely understood, one reason why his co-workers jokingly refer to him as "Freakshow."

Not among that number is Lionel’s boss, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), an old-school private eye who appreciates Lionel for his gifts, including a photographic memory and total recall. Frank enlists Lionel to be within reach as Frank negotiates a mysterious deal with a group of hoodlums.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw, left, with Norton. (Warner Bros.)</p>

Gugu Mbatha-Raw, left, with Norton. (Warner Bros.)

That does not go well. Frank is murdered and Lionel is obliged to find out who killed him and why.

That investigation takes him to Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a lawyer and community activist in opposition to ruthless developer Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin in full-fury mode, interpreting real-life New York power broker Robert Moses), who is intent on destroying black or poor neighbourhoods to make way for his own visions.

Norton's new noir thriller proves timely

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Edward Norton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw star in the noir thriller, set in the mid-1950s and revolving around corrupt power brokers of that era. (Warner Bros.)
Edward Norton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw star in the noir thriller, set in the mid-1950s and revolving around corrupt power brokers of that era. (Warner Bros.)

Posted: 31/10/2019 3:00 AM

TORONTO — Fans of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn might find it difficult to reconcile the contemporary story Lethem told with Edward Norton’s atmospheric noir thriller, set in the mid-1950s and revolving around corrupt power brokers of that era.

The core is the same. Norton himself plays Lethem’s unlikely gumshoe, Lionel Essrog, an operative at a detective agency out to solve a case when his mentor Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) is murdered. A potential roadblock in the investigation is that Essrog has Tourette’s syndrome, so for all his deductive brilliance, his tendency to explode with involuntary exclamations makes him the antithesis of the typical smooth operator of detective fiction.

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Norton fashions the movie as kind of an East Coast response to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), in which the roots of a murder mystery are entangled with civic corruption. That’s problematic only because Norton, as a screenwriter, lacks the economy and wit of a Robert Towne. (As rich as it is, Chinatown still runs 13 minutes shorter than the comparatively ponderous Motherless Brooklyn.)

Norton proves unable to resist scenes that in theory serve to add depth to his character. One scene in particular, in a Harlem jazz club, sees Lionel electrified by the jazz trumpeter of a Miles Davis-like musician (Michael Kenneth Williams is well-cast in the role). The point of the scene is that Lionel’s mental processes sync up to the improvisational riffs of bebop. But it’s debatable if the scene’s inclusion benefits the story. In fact, it stalls it.

Though Norton took years to write the screenplay, the end result feels too on the nose when it comes to reflecting the current state of the American political scene. Baldwin, who regularly caricatures U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live, portrays his real estate developer character as a monstrous variation, hateful, vengeful and filled with toxic entitlement.

The material would have stood without Norton drawing that line between his fictional autocrat and the one in the Oval Office.

Polanski did not cast a Richard Nixon impersonator as Noah Cross in Chinatown. That’s one of many reasons why the film still stands up. It’s doubtful you’ll be able to say the same thing about Motherless Brooklyn 45 years from now.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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