Over the years, no filmmaker has attempted to adapt Jonathan Lethem’s novels to the big screen. The American novelist is known for ambitiously intertwining genres, including sci-fi and detective fiction, a style that needs a deft adaptorial touch. Enter Edward Norton, who goes directly for Lethem’s most popular work, Motherless Brooklyn. Having developed it since the early 2000s, this is clearly something of a passion project for Norton, who here not only adapts, but also directs and stars.
He does the pulpy source material justice and his admiration for Lethem’s work shines through: it’s a well-crafted and minutely-detailed film that avoids the vanity project label by getting the mood just right. To tell the 1950s-set story of a Tourette’s-afflicted detective sleuthing for the truth behind his mentor and only friend’s murder, he’s also assembled an eye-wateringly good cast that includes Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Leslie Mann, and Bruce Willis. Gugu Mbatha-Raw shines brightest, as does Norton, who is predictably excellent in the lead role of the talented but afflicted gumshoe narrator. One scene in particular sees him react uncontrollably (but harmoniously) to the music he hears in a small jazz club, and it’s a real doozy!
Doubling as a portrait of New York City’s shady past, complete with Alec Baldwin playing the dark overlord of municipal construction, Motherless Brooklyn feels like it could have been a deeper, more enthralling dive into the racist foundations of the American Dream. The murder plot isn’t quite as gripping as it could have been, never reaching the dizzy heights of Chinatown or LA Confidential, which are strong touchstones here. Still, if you’re craving an old-fashioned detective story with a twist, this could be just the ticket.
Motherless Brooklyn | Directed by Edward Norton (US, 2019), with Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe. Starts Dec 12.
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