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Hot tits on my milky tea, please.

Motherless Brooklyn
(2019)

(SPOILERS) Edward Norton’s extremely loose adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 noir pastiche is uber-liberal in intent, making it uber-ironic that Norton should wade brazenly into a quagmire of white-saviour tropes. I’m generally on board with checking out anything “notoriously difficult” Norton appears in, even if his choices are occasionally regrettable (Collateral Beauty). He is, however, nothing if not weighed down by piercing intellect and concomitant social conscience, one he feels compelled to massage (he’s the kind of prominent activist who declares celebrities should “participate quietly” in such matters). Motherless Brooklyn has a lot going for it, but it’s ultimately sunk by that need to espouse noble causes.

Norton snapped up Lethem’s novel soon after publication; he doubtless would have made it sooner, had he not continually managed to get in the way of his own Hollywood profile (his most prominent pictures – American History X, Red Dragon, The Incredible Hulk – invariably inviting the “difficult and controlling” tag). Lethem’s hook, a PI with Tourette syndrome, was evidently the principle attraction to the actor, since he throws almost everything else out. Gone is the contemporary setting and a plot involving the mob and Buddhist monks, replaced by a 1950s milieu and a conspiracy centred on “master builder” Robert Moses, here renamed Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin).

The actual Moses’ achievements as a New York city planner are mired in controversy, and Norton particularly draws on his displacement of residents and destruction of neighbourhoods, along with accompanying accusations of racism. You may wonder why Norton should be so interested in this character? Well, his granddad James Rouse represented, to young Ed, the complete and venerable opposite of such reckless intent. Motherless Brooklyn became, accordingly a “homage to things he cared about”. Rouse set forth city projects based on “planned communities” – which sounds horrific, whatever the intent – that appear to have been a considered and successful endeavour. He was in favour of integrated communities, and his most notable success, Columbia Maryland, ranks as the fifth best place to live in the US (as ever, I suspect these things depend entirely on who you ask).

Of course, one needs to recognise that Rouse rose to the status of the kind of figure likely to receive a presidential medal. He’s one Norton can balance as fundamentally opposed to his villain (Moses), which in itself suggests an embodiment of the Hegelian dialectic; in any Hegelian mechanism the reinforcement of the state is essential, and so it is that the federal government provides many of the jobs in Columbia. Would Norton be conscious of such machinations? He is obviously a very bright fellow, too bright for many filmmakers – who find him “difficult and controlling”, remember – but that doesn’t necessarily mean he questions the programming directly feeding his social conscience and prodding him towards ever-so valuable and honourable projects.

After all, Ed’s a Yale graduate and was a competitive rower there (probably not enough of a team player for the Skull and Bones, though). He’s a UN Goodwill Ambassador, buys into climate change and thinks Greta Grunberg is a little angel (the little part is correct). He drinks the Kool Aid, which may go some way to explain how he could end up producing a picture so patronising to the cause it espouses.

Norton’s Lionel Essrog is nicknamed “Freakshow” for his condition, and he represents the sort of ardent method actor’s role you’d have seen Dustin Hoffman pursuing in the mid-80s, followed by similar awards-baiting, disability-flourishing turns by the likes of De Niro and Pacino. Indeed, Lionel’s man-child savant aspect is dangerous ground (he’s at once streetwise and a pariah, as well as carrying an emotionally virginal quality that takes you back to the ingloriously halcyon days of De Niro in Awakenings). This is only compounded by associating his affliction with the affliction suffered by the black community (Michael K Williams is even trotted out to say as much). So Lionel, as their crusader and defender, becomes the type of figure Norton should have had the sense to steer clear of even were this a straight adaptation, let alone expressly sculpting it into one flaunting such tropes.

Instead, Norton seems to double down, as Lionel receives admiring words for the part of his brain in tune with jazz and has Gugu Mbatha-Raw dote all over him like a rash (Lionel, of course, is her protector and greatest ally). Quite aside from how dubious all this is, Norton’s personal interest in Moses gets in the way of his detective story, cluttering up Motherless Brooklyn’s two-and-a-quarter-hour running time with melodramatic diversions and attempts to explore the period’s social fabric (ie give a lecture).

It doesn’t help any either that the gist of Lionel’s investigation into why his mentor and detective agency boss Frank (Bruce Willis) got offed is quite clear early on, before further elaborating on these Chinatown-esque property machinations with even more Chinatown-esque scandalously illicit offspring. But while Norton is a serviceable director – much more so than in his previous picture, lightweight romcom Keeping the Faith – he brings none of the necessary economy of storytelling and fails to muster the inner tension fostered by a good mystery.

Several things keep the picture watchable through its longueurs, however. Firstly, and most importantly, is Norton’s tic-riddled performance, every bit as well observed as you would expect. Then there’s the cast he has assembled – mostly working for free apparently – including Alec Baldwin (familiarly authoritarian as Moses), Willem Dafoe (familiarly hyper as Moses’ brother Paul), Bobby Cannavale (familiarly duplicitous as fellow detective Tony), Leslie Mann (familiarly superfluous as Frank’s wife) and Fisher Stevens (familiarly diminutive as a heavy).

Motherless Brooklyn’s production was marred by a fire that cost a life, and the picture failed to make a profit on its release. It isn’t hard to work out why, as a vanity project that dissatisfies in all the departments its attempting to score. Control freak rather than Freakshow, Norton probably needed to step back in at least one of the producer-director-writer-actor departments, but he lets his obsessiveness confound the material.


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