It’s been 20 years since novelist Jonathan Lethem published Motherless Brooklyn — the story of Lionel Essrog, a low-level gumshoe with Tourette’s — and actor Edward Norton has been trying to bring it to the screen every since.
Oh, to know the versions and revisions that must have taken place these past two decades. Time affects all works, and, if the surface of Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn is any indication, more than a couple of books, movies, and events caught Norton’s eye and wedged their way into the final product — influences that distract more than they add.
Little remains of Lethem’s original novel save for the title, Lionel’s Tourette’s, and the car chase/murder of Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), Lionel’s boss and father figure, that opens the novel. The murder — in the book a stabbing, here a gunshot — triggers the plot: Lionel (Norton) searches for the killer and find so much more.
There are ghosts of Lethem’s novel in Norton’s adaptation, hints that an earlier version might have stuck closer to Lionel’s insular quest, but they are nothing more than shadows now. Norton moves the book’s period from the 1990s to the post-war ‘50s, both to invoke the tone of film noir and to bring in another popular 20th-century work: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs.
Jacobs — one of America’s greatest thinkers about how cities, particularly sidewalks and stoops — waged a famous battle against New York City developer Robert Moses over the displacement of poor neighborhoods in favor of parks and parkways. Norton riffs on their public fight with actress Cherry Jones standing-in for Jacobs and Alec Baldwin playing Moses — here Moses Randolph à la Donald Trump by way of Noah Cross.
Chinatown is an influence. Ditto for jazz music. (Maybe Norton is using jazz as a way to apologize for playing fast and loose with the classics.) The music is Motherless Brooklyn’s greatest asset, notably “Daily Battles.” Thom York wrote it, and Wynton Marsalis reworked it — players manipulating players, works becoming other works.
It’s all frustrating. Not terrible, but certainly an overstuffed mishmash of Norton’s favorite things. Then again, that’s the sort of dime-store criticism leveled at many an actor’s directorial efforts. Take Marlon Brando’s 1961 Western One-Eyed Jacks, adapted from the novel The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones by Charles Neider. That too was an actor’s attempt to use period genre to comment on the present. That too used casting and story to address the disparity between the haves (white men, mostly) and the have not’s (women of color, mostly). And that too was not appreciated on initial release.
One-Eye Jacks is no masterpiece, but it is a damn good movie — visually exciting and complex enough to draw you back for seconds and thirds. Motherless Brooklyn isn’t. It’s a whole lot of everything rolled into one and packaged to look and feel like it adds up to more than the sum of its parts. The book isn’t always better than the movie, but in this case, both Jonathan Lethem and Jane Jacobs are better served on the page.
Written for the screen and directed by Edward Norton
Based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem
Produced by Michael Bederman, Bill Migliore, Daniel Nadler, Edward Norton, Gigi Pritzker, Rachel Shane, Robert F. Smith
Starring: Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Willem Dafoe, Alec Baldwin, Leslie Mann, Michael Kenneth Williams, Bobby Cannavale, Ethan Suplee, Fisher Stevens, Cherry Jones
Warner Bros., Rated R, Running time 144 minutes, Opens November 1, 2019