I’ve eagerly awaited this monster project from Edward Norton (who adapted the novel and wrote the screenplay, produced, directed, and starred) for some time. It starts from a terrific book of the same title by Jonathan Lethem, whose first novel, Gun with Occasional Music, I read when I was judging the William L. Crawford Award for New Fantasy Fiction almost 30 years ago. I finally got my paws on a DVD.
Like Lethem’s first, Motherless Brooklyn is a noir-flavored detective story. Norton has taken a lot of liberties with it, moving it to 1957 from 1999 and using historical beasts, heroines, and heroes of that period in New York’s history. I’m not married to original text when it comes to film adaptations. In fact, if the script is too close, I find myself picking at it, like Norton’s OCD detective with Tourette’s, compulsively matching the screenwriting to the memorized novel instead of, you know, watching.
My first test for a film is whether I’m thinking about it the next day. Did one better this time – I dreamed about Essrog, and the creamy jazz of the soundtrack, Alec Baldwin’s urbane menace, and reformer Gabby Horowitz, played by Cherry Jones. (You remember her. She killed it as Matt Damon’s mom in Oceans 12.) This character sprang straight into my heart through the “mouthy newspaper broad” door. My immediate maternal family were all newspaper people of the old school. My grandfather was the original irascible editor-mentor in real life of all the original intrepid young police reporters in real life who ever passed through the Chicago City News Bureau. The moment Jones opens her mouth, I fall over dead with love.
Anyway, this movie has an amazing cast. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is actually English, but delivers a glorious combination of a Harlem girl of the 50s, vulnerable and also be-damned-to-you ballsy. Bruce Willis, Willem Dafoe, Leslie Mann, Bobby Cannavale, holy shit, who isn’t in this movie? Word on the street is, they all did it for scale, i.e., for nothing, so I guess they just loved the job.
Stuff I expected, because I’ve been watching the hype about this movie for months: Father-son issues (almost every Norton movie ever), class, race, and outrage about the way commercial real estate, corrupt legislators, and public works projects do some pretty filthy things to ordinary people.
Stuff that got under my skin: OMG the jazz! Winton Marsalis plays all the trumpet sounds for the film’s homage to the Miles Davis Quintet, plus delicious incidental music, much of it written for the film. The color palate has a noir flavor but evades the sepia flatness you often get in such retro projects. Again, the real estate outrage hit me hard, since I spent a number of years working for giant commercial real estate developers and saw up close how barefacedly evil they can be.
Mostly what got to me was Lionel Essrog, a bright, sweet, shy guy who might be less quiet if it weren’t for his Tourette’s-fueled outbursts, who has accepted his role if not the sobriquet “freakshow” in a family of strays. All the detective agency ops were recruited out of the same orphanage. Essrog in particular has been mentored by the head of the agency (played by Willis), a flawed but generous father-figure whose appreciation for Essrog’s gifts and affection for his decency make the mirror that lets us really see Essrog.
This is typical of Norton’s films about father-son issues. There may be a girl, but her role is to be the foil. Father and son always illuminate one another. Their confrontations and evasions tell us, more than any other pairing in a Norton film, what to think of the central character. This time around the relationship seems to be good, a departure from his earlier projects.
Maybe because there’s been so much talk among my author colleagues about this internal monologue blog post, I really fixed on this line of Essrog’s, describing Tourette’s Syndrome: “It’s like a piece of my head broke off and got a life of its own and then just decided to keep joyriding me for kicks.”
Stuff I didn’t care about, but you might: New York. I’m a Chicagoan and all my myths are here. But if you have the feels for New York and Brooklyn, you may appreciate how much love for the place saturates this picture. Norton has used this John Updike quote elsewhere: “The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.” It shows. Also, no cars were harmed to make this movie, not that I care, but if you get hard looking at beautifully-kept vintage cars, this will be a stropfest for you.
Two weeks after my first, second, and third viewings, I still love Motherless Brooklyn. You can get it via Amazon Prime. Take a look.
(Warner Bros. Pictures, 2019)
Running time 144 minutes, rated R. For full credits, see the listing at IMDb.
Like Motherless Brooklyn, my first novel Trash Sex Magic gestated for twenty years. Trash was long-listed two years running for the Nebula Award, short-listed for the Locus Award for new fantasy, and it burned a hole in my brain that I haven’t even tried to fill up.
This story is about trailer trash sex magicians. They serve a tree who used to be a man and is now a god. Developers buy the land and cut down the tree, killing him, and sex miracles spray all over the landscape. The heroine has four days to find another man to take his place.