It’s always cool for two of my top ten films of the year to find their way to me inside a week. A few days ago it was The Lighthouse and yesterday it was Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn, a brilliant, sprawling noir epic that sees this accomplished artist behind the camera for only the second time in his career and in front of it for the first time since I can remember… I think the last thing I saw him in was that fourth Bourne film that didn’t even have Jason Bourne in it. He roars back into action commendably here as both writer and director in a passioned period piece that has a lot to say and one of those old school two plus hour runtimes to say it in as well as the kind of jaw dropping, star studded ensemble casts they just don’t bother to assemble much anymore.
In adapting Jonathan Lethem’s novel, Norton rewinds a 90’s setting back into the 50’s and comes up a winner playing Lionel Essrog, a private detective whose friend, mentor and father figure Frank (Bruce Willis lingers in a cameo you wish was more) is murdered by shady thugs whilst investigating the kind of lead that can only end in bloodshed. Lionel suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome in an era where medication, compassions and science are sorely lacking and has thus sadly earned the moniker ‘freak show’ by his peers. That doesn’t stop him from using gut intuition to continue Frank’s work, leading him down the obligatory NYC noir rabbit hole of Harlem jazz clubs, red herrings, betrayals, corrupt government officials and bursts of sudden violence meant as warning but there to juice up the intrigue. It’s a fairly serpentine web of lies and decades old secrets involving many characters brought to life by one hell of a cast. Gugu Mbatha-Raw scores soulful points as an activist whose involvement runs far deeper than even she knows. Alec Baldwin gives a terrifying turn as an impossibly evil, truly bigoted mega city planner whose agenda to bulldoze poorer communities shows little remorse in character and allows the seasoned actor to provide what might be the best villain portrayal of the year. I didn’t think I’d be raving about Willem Dafoe two times in one week (he crushed his role in The Lighthouse) but the guy is on fuckin fire, bringing cantankerous warmth to a vaguer role I won’t spoil. Also in the mix are Michael Kenneth Williams as a mercurial trumpet player, Bobby Cannavle, Dallas Roberts, Ethan Suplee, Fisher Stevens, Cherry Jones, Robert Wisdom, Josh Pais, Peter Gray Lewis and Leslie Mann.
Considering that Norton’s director debut was a Ben Stiller romcom, its fairly heavy lifting to pivot over towards a two and a half hour period piece adapted from a revered novel but he pulls it off and then some. He directs the actors with snap and ease so we get organic, underplayed yet lasting impressions from each performance including his own, a very tricky role that never comes across as a gimmick. His affliction is never conveniently absent when the scene requires it and he makes sure to find the frustration, humour and lived-in aspects of Lionel’s personality. Baldwin’s character serves to represent the callous nature of real estate development conglomerates these days and the tendency to gloss over less fortunate folk like invisible downtrodden, or downright see them as lesser people. Norton, as both actor and director, gently explores this world with a compassion for areas in which some have more than less and focuses on themes until we get to see a powerful morality play unfold within the already tantalizing central mystery. This film sort of came out of nowhere (I don’t remember any marketing outside like a month before release?!) and isn’t making huge waves yet but it’s a powerful, funny, touching, detailed, beautifully acted and directed piece, one of the best thus far of the year.