Readers Write In #240: ‘Motherless Brooklyn’, Edward Norton’s passion project that lost out to Martin Scorsese’s

Posted on August 9, 2020

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(by Madan Mohan)

In 2019, two filmmakers finally presented before the audience their respective labours of love, long gestation projects that had remained in the works for years and years. Both were set way back in the past and dabbled in crime. The first one – Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman – you know about even if you were even casually interested in new Hollywood releases for the year.  With Netflix promoting it bigtime and with near-delirious word of mouth reception as well, there was no way any aficionado would have missed it.

The other is Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn.  Which you likely haven’t heard about unless you closely follow Norton’s career. I hadn’t either, until today.  And quite why that should be the case is puzzling to me, now that I have seen it.

Motherless Brooklyn is based on the eponymous novel written in 1999.  The novel was much loved and when Norton acquired the movie rights to it, it must have looked like a winning bet.  Except that it took him until 2012 just to finish writing the script. And he moved the film to the 1950s from the book’s 1980s mileu and wrote a Robert Moses-like character into the film, radically changing the scope and sweep of the story.  An effort that largely seemed to earn him ire or at least mild disappointment rather than praise (other than RogerEbert.com which somehow seems to carry on the great critic’s legacy fittingly).

What Norton achieves by moving the time-frame is to exhume the unholy underbelly of the period often celebrated as the golden years of the USA, indeed the decade Trump harks back to when he says he wants to MAGA – the 1950s.  The more popular and favoured narrative is to identify the 1970s as the period where things started to go pear-shaped and that Reagan accelerated the trend.  But Norton brings to us a New York City where low income houses mostly lived in by Black and Latino people were declared slums (when they were not), torn down for the master builder – christened as Moses Randolph here – to build beautiful high rises, bridges, tunnels and parks.  Randolph, played masterfully by Alec Baldwin, expounds his mission statement to Norton’s private detective character Lionel Essrog in a Wall Street-like scene.

There’s Wall Street like exposition through masterful dialogue, there’s a French Connection like car chase early on and much else that would fit right into Coppola or Scorsese’s universe.  But there’s also black activist Laura Rose (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and the intimate moments she and Essrog share bring a dimension of morality that is rare in this genre (and which may have possibly turned off those who went in expecting to get noir). Lionel and Laura’s lives intersect in their respective pursuits of the truth but the intersection in turn leads them to find each other. This makes you (well, it did for me anyway) invest in this pair more than you normally would in a crime film.

This creative liberty Norton took, both with his adaptation of the source material as well as with breaking genre rules, appears not to have appealed to the audience.  Combined in turn with the tempo that has been described as slow but is, really, just true to life.

In contrast, Scorsese was able to insert his Jimmy Hoffa history lesson very carefully into a larger crime saga playing on familiar ground and allowed himself only the gentle subversion of having the don reflect back on what he did and whether it had all been worth it.  He made what was for this exacting Scorsese fanboy one of his safest films and it worked like nobody’s business.

Norton, on the other hand, paid the price for not adhering to today’s obsession with tone and genre.  Perhaps, had he indeed completed and released the film somewhere in the mid noughties (which should have been possible with a reasonable timeline), it would have received a more receptive audience.

But with streaming platforms providing us such a convenient library to retrieve films from, we don’t need to worry about why the film missed the bus upon release.  This is still a film you should go see…on Amazon Prime. This is a film that badly needs a re-rating.  This is a film that makes Norton’s increasing absence from the big screen feel worth it.  Even if it does not go down as the modern classic that it deserves to be regarded as, Norton can hold his head high for having made a directorial debut more accomplished than the work of some seasoned specialists.