Review by Johannes Black
It is a recurring trend amongst contemporary American novelists – such as John Updike, Saul Bellow or Norman Mailer – that cinema has generally steered clear of their literature. Such fictions represent dense, philosophical moodscapes, following the quest of an individual as they try to make sense of an increasingly different world; a way of life, as lyricises Bob Dylan, where there’s every chance “you’ll sink like a stone/ For the times they are a-changing’.” Motherless Brooklyn, adapted by Edward Norton from the novel by Jonathan Lethem, is proof that such works can be flattened on the screen – even if waiting on the back-burner since October 1999. Audacious throughout, Motherless Brooklyn drifts across its 144-minute length much like a Himalayan glacier: both epic and cumbersome to grapple with.
Edward Norton stars as Lionel Essrog, whose undiagnosed Tourette’s syndrome – calmed only by gum, weed, or “something a little stronger” – impedes every step of his career, working under the wing of Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) in a small-time, detective agency. Living under the heights of Brooklyn bridge ( similar to the poet Hart Crane, whose view provided much inspiration), Essrog drifts between existential musings and his daily battles of involuntary tics. Failing to protect Frank during a business operation, Essrog later commits himself to find out what transpired. This journey takes him between jazz bars and city halls: a world of capitalist expansion that appears to stem from the John Hughes-esque figure of Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin). Amid racial tensions and the polarising gentrification of city ‘slums’, a story unfolds of a broken society.
Norton’s picture beautifully reimagines a time and place, rewinding Lethem’s novel forties years back into the 1950s: polished chrome vehicles parked at every corner, or a headlining, John Osbourne play “Look Back in Anger” flashing above sidewalks. Elements of the original novel, however, do not survive the translation into cinema. Characters speak in a kind of theatrical prose and the script, for the greater part, appears recited more than learned. Lines as cliché as “everybody gotta find their way in the world” are delivered with staccato emphasis, slipping between sincerity and caricature.
It is remarkable to watch Edward Norton construct the identity of Essrog, moreover. Jazz functions as a kind of analogy to his way of thinking: its athletic, improvisatory surface concealing patterns of finely-tuned order. Norton himself emerges as the orchestrator of the picture, though it can be difficult to distinguish whether or not he is playing the character, director, producer, or screenwriter when present on the screen. His number of roles during the end credits rivals even Orson Welles.
Motherless Brooklyn is by no means a perfect film. Its idiosyncrasies, much like Lionel Essrog himself, are hard to disregard. Yet, it is a giant of contemporary cinema for its confident and bold filmmaking.
Motherless Brooklyn is currently screening in theatres across Ireland.