‘Motherless Brooklyn’, the novel, was a critically acclaimed and National Book Award winning work from the author Jonathan Lethem. I had come across the book while randomly browsing for some interesting titles and purely on the basis of its interesting premise and lead protagonist decided to pick it up. As promised by the blurb and synopsis, it was quite an interesting mood piece of a novel with an impressively interesting lead character, Lionel Essrog, who is a detective afflicted with a condition I hadn’t heard of at the time, Tourette’s syndrome, which inadvertently causes him to utter seemingly banal words in the middle of conversations and also other tics like touching a person on the shoulder a particular number of times.
The movie is based on the book though there are some changes in the plot and setting. The basic premise is retained, but the timeline has shifted backwards to 1950’s Brooklyn (the book was set in the 90’s timeline of when it came out). This gives the filmmaker scope to showcase some of the beautiful vintage cinematography which is typical of period pieces of the era and helps give a pleasantly alluring tint to the film. Ah, yes. The filmmaker. The project appears to have been a personal passion project of Edward Norton, in development for years, and he himself plays the idiosyncratic lead. In a way, it’s perfect casting. Edward Norton has proven in the past that he is capable of brilliant performances, especially in the role of oddballs and here he captures the character’s uniqueness in perfect synchronicity with the portrayal in the book.
Lionel, alternatively called Brooklyn or Freakshow, is a New York private eye working for Frank Minna, a virtual father figure for him. Lionel and a few others who work with him were taken in from an orphanage by Frank Minna and have been with him ever since. Frank Minna, played by Bruce Willis, is involved in a shady case involving the mob, and while Lionel and his partner are on a stakeout for Minna, he gets killed. The detective agency, which fronts as a car rental place, is thrown into disarray with another of Minna’s men, played by Bobby Cannavale, taking up the reins of the organization. Lionel feels personally responsible for finding what went down with Frank and this involves getting caught up in a murky web of intrigue, politics and deceit where no one really is what they seem. But his condition, while socially awkward, does give him some strengths for the job. Like a keen eye for detail and a remarkable memory. Is it enough though, to sort out a mess which with increasingly noirish threads, goes up to some pretty high echelons of power in the city, and may include the real estate mafia to boot?
Norton plays the character of Lionel perfectly. There are moments of hilarity as a result of his condition, yet it isn’t played for easy laughs or exploitation. There is a realness and earnestness to Lionel which endears him to the viewer, just as the character did in the book. It reminds us that we just don’t get to see Norton on screen enough though thankful for these efforts which remain in the memory. My personal favourite of his prior work is the grippingly intense American History X. While this doesn’t have the intensity of that, his performance is an impressive addition to his resume. Alec Baldwin is also there, as a smarmy but outwardly charming politician and he provides able foil for the story. The movie also has an angle which while more prevalent probably in the time it is set in, will still find resonance in the various protests happening around the world, especially in the US, in recent times. This perhaps may have been an intentional contemporary update as the movie doesn’t entirely stay true to the book in its latter half and plays it like a version of the classic ‘Chinatown’.
It’s a beautifully mounted work and acted very well all around, yet there is something missing which would have made it truly great. A lack of intensity perhaps is the main culprit here, which can be especially noticeable in a movie running well over 2 hours. For the same reason, it may not appeal to the conventional thriller watcher, but for anyone interested in a more discerning, slow burning movie experience, I wouldn’t suggest missing it. At the very least for its uniquely interesting lead character.