Writer/director Edward Norton shooting on the streets of New York City
MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN B
USA (144 mi) 2019 d: Edward Norton Official site
Words rush out of the cornucopia of my brain to course over the surface of the world, tickling reality like fingers on piano keys. Caressing, nudging. They’re an invisible army on a peacekeeping mission, a peaceable horde. They mean no harm.
―Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem, 1999
A hugely ambitious project that some are calling a vanity project, but that diminishes the audacious hutzpah it takes to make a film like this, more of a labor love that borders on greatness in terms of the reach and scope of its efforts, as it attempts to be Roman Polanski’s CHINATOWN (1974) for New York City, but ends up being considerably less, though just as Jake Gittes uncovered the secrets of the power brokers behind the Los Angeles water supply, another private eye is searching through the recorded deeds to find who’s behind the changing shape of New York City, as neighborhoods are victimized by ambitious city projects that require massive relocation. Written, acted, directed, and produced by Norton, this is something that’s been in the works for twenty years, buying the rights to Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel just a year after his spectacular breakout performance in the film AMERICAN HISTORY X (1998), but then holding onto it, waiting for the right opportunity, which apparently happened with the election of Trump, the ultimate New York City insider who knows where all the bodies are buried. The gist of the novel is a private eye with Tourette’s syndrome, which means he has uncontrollable outbursts of profanity, or an inexplicable string of words that come flying out of his mouth along with accompanying tics and grotesque body movements than can be terribly off-putting, with the novelist staying inside his head, getting carried away with this wondrous assault of language, while making something poetic from the profane. Onscreen it takes some getting used to as it’s discomforting and not at all pleasant, where he smokes marijuana to help him relax and calm the nerves, yet it’s an oversimplification to think this is some kind of narcissistic showpiece for Norton’s acting talents, as the film itself is a wildly convoluted and enthusiastic ride throughout, offering plenty of New York flavor eye candy along with some terrific performances, where there’s a wealth of fireworks to appreciate, not the least of which is the densely impactful storyline that only gets more intriguing. Norton shifts the story from the contemporary setting of the 90’s to the 50’s, digitally resurrecting Penn Station (now demolished), accentuating a film noir era with fedora hats, vintage cars, and old-fashioned detective work which inevitably includes mysteriously difficult puzzles to solve, spending the majority of time searching for the missing pieces, allowing viewers to play along, like a blown-up game of Clue. A running joke throughout is just how easily one finds parking spaces, an impossibility in the city as currently constructed, suggesting a nostalgic look back to simpler times. But what it also reveals is the inside political realm of running a big city, exposing “the true meaning of power,” all the lies and dirty secrets, corrupt appointments, missing bodies, and overall shenanigans it takes to make the public believe some fairy tale while secretly behind-the scenes raw power ruthlessly does what it wants, usually crossing the lines of morality and lawful activity, shortcutting the rules in order to make things happen now, demolishing anyone or anything that stands in their way, all in the name of progress.
Lionel Essrog (Norton) flinches and grimaces as words inexplicably race out of his mouth with an uncontrollable gush of words, but in this film, New York City is such an energized world with so much activity that people barely notice, as it’s all part of the city’s eccentric personality, unique and distinctive. But while we witness this grotesque display of awkwardness, Lionel is narrating the story in a calm and reassuring voice, coolly describing what’s happening, as Lionel works for Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who runs an old-school detective agency, who’s viewed as more than a friend, offering support to Lionel early on when he was in an abusive orphanage, tagging him with the nickname “Motherless Brooklyn,” also known as “Freakshow” due to his condition, but Frank doesn’t share the details of the case he’s working on with his crew, which makes things more difficult afterwards when he’s killed off in the first 20-minutes of the movie in an arranged meeting gone wrong. While Lionel is a bonafide misfit, he also has a photographic memory, which is why Frank loves to bring him along, as he’s got a thing for details, going off the rails at times with his nervous disorder, but he loves to arrange things back into perfect harmony, like resetting the table exactly as it was. This traumatic incident leaves things in a quandary, a scrambled mess that Lionel has to figure out, trying to decipher what Frank was working on, like putting together all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. That is largely the structure of the film, introducing various characters along the way, trying to figure out their angle, while dark forces are conspiring to prevent him, like Frank, from accomplishing that task, moving in secrecy, resorting to diversionary tactics, routinely misleading him away from what he’s looking for, and roughing him up, if necessary, even make him disappear if he ignores their warnings. All of this is familiar film noir territory, but what makes it work are such fully developed characters of interest, along with their more murky shadow players hired to protect them. Norton introduces a new character not in the book, a real estate villain, Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin, who of course plays Trump on Saturday Night Live), a larger-than-life figure based upon Robert Moses, a visionary yet contemptible builder who helped shape the look of New York City in the first half of the 20th century, whose reputation was severely damaged by Robert Caro’s Pulitzer prize winning biography The Power Broker in 1974. He was also a champion swimmer, where the film keeps intact his habit of keeping people waiting sitting poolside to see him until he finished swimming laps. When he’s introduced at the newly elected mayor’s coming out press conference, Randolph is a nebulous figure that operates on his own, actually towering over the presumed corridors of power, assuming titles to various city authorities, which allows him unlimited power which he wields mercilessly, having little regard for the diminutive others that stand in his way, as he aggressively pursues various urban renewal projects, which means clearing what were labeled “slums” for ambitious real estate projects (though they weren’t actually slums at all, but simply places blacks, Hispanics, and even Jewish people lived), using eminent domain to tear down what he wants, even if people are still living there.
The secret of Randolph’s success is remaining outside the realms of politics, as he’s not an electable position, which means you can’t vote him out, as he’s perfectly protected, unreachable as an entrenched power broker, insulated by the feeble whims of the electorate. Making this character even more interesting, Moses has a brother, Paul Randolph (Willem Dafoe), a brilliant architect with visionary ideas, but without the power to implement them, stuck in a sado-masochistic co-dependent relationship with his brother, who loves to humiliate him by rejecting his ideas, then taking all the glory for himself. Paul is a pathetic figure, following his brother around at public appearances, becoming a leading voice of opposition, decrying his blatant corruption, yet barely ekes out a living himself, a loner who’s borderline homeless, while his brother lives in opulence, like aristocratic royalty. Among the leading opposition figures is Cherry Jones as Gabby Horowitz, a community organizer and rabble rouser (an homage to Jane Jacobs) who represents those people who are being displaced by gentrification, all people of color, all poor, without the clout to stand up to the city’s grand plans. Working with her is a black attorney, Laura Ross (Gugu Mbatha-Raw in an impressive performance), appearing previously in Amma Asante’s BELLE (2013), Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights (2014), and Peter Landesman’s Concussion (2015), while also winning an Emerging Artist Award during the Chicago Film Festival’s 18th Annual Black Perspectives Tribute in 2014. Frank was apparently following her before he was shot, so Lionel does the same, discovering she lives near a jazz joint in Harlem owned by her father, a mysterious one-armed man. Assuming the role of a reporter, this forces him to confront his worst fears, coming out of the background to interact and speak face-to-face with people, which causes insurmountable stress due to his affliction, where he can’t stop himself from tapping people on the shoulder, followed by an obligatory “Sorry.” Following her, feigning an interest in her cause, she’s suspicious when he doesn’t jot down notes, but he appeases all anxieties by repeating word for word exactly what she told him, which is quite impressive to experience, as that’s out of the ordinary. She doesn’t appear bothered by his various outbursts and mannerisms and invites him to the club, one of the showpieces of the film, featuring the talents of Michael K. Williams as the internationally renowned trumpeter, with Wynton Marsalis playing the solos, Daily Battles - Wynton Marsalis / THOM YORKE Motherless YouTube (2:35), which becomes the recurring musical motif for the film, also sung by Radiohead singer Thom Yorke, Thom Yorke: "Daily Battles" YouTube (3:22), which is profoundly effective, adding a dramatic pulse that feels strangely unique, adding an underlying layer of aching sadness. While an unexpected romance develops between the two (he’s a generation older), revealing a couple of lost souls, it allows for a sweet release, despite suggestions of a “white savior,” and all the many recurring obstacles faced along the way. An especially good showdown scene takes place between Lionel and Moses, with a large map of New York City behind him, a model construction of the city on the desk, while the imperious Brooklyn Bridge looms out the window, with Moses justifying his visionary intentions, suggesting he’s building for the future, that he can’t wait for everyday realities to slow him down, insisting he’s not above the law, “I’m ahead of it.” While he’s consumed by power, he views the actions of relocating the poorest elements of the city as essential to delivering the necessary goods, adding longstanding racism and unembellished historical truths to a genre tale, leaving behind an expansive idea of an overwhelming sense of loss. While flawed, most likely missing tauter editing and directorial prowess, there are nonetheless poetic flourishes, making this a highly entertaining and profoundly affecting picture.