Who would have thought Robert Moses, “Master Builder of New York,” would have ended up as the villain in a classically-styled film noir?
To be sure, he now sports the name Moses Randolph, but there’s no mistaking the ambition, the lack of civic accountability and the desire to destroy blue-collar neighborhoods which he alone deems to be irremediable slums. His stature is only enhanced by the actor who plays him—a blustering and bloviating Alec Baldwin, whom I suspect will receive an Oscar nomination because it’s that kind of role and that level of performance. But I doubt he’ll be alone—Edward Norton, who directed, wrote the script based on Jonathan Lethem’s novel and plays the Tourette syndrome-afflicted hero, Lionel Essrog, is sure to join him.
Set in 1957, “Motherless Brooklyn” is an urban tale of corruption, kickbacks and murder. So many factors make watching it so enjoyable, not the least of which are the superb art direction (more about that in a moment) and the seemingly endless way all these great actors keep popping up. Who’s that under the fedora and behind those jowls? Bruce Willis as Frank Minna, head of a detective agency/car service. And his employees? In addition to Edward Norton, there’s Bobby Cannavale, as Tony Vermonte, acting tough and dallying with the boss’s wife (a very droll Leslie Mann), and Dallas Roberts, as Danny Fantl, wimping it out. And the guy behind the bushy beard? Willem Dafoe as Paul, the disillusioned dreamer. Let’s not forget Cherry Jones as municipal rabble rouser Gabby Horowitz, and—who else?—Michael Kenneth Williams as Trumpet Man playing in a Harlem jazz joint.
But the film stands squarely on the shoulders of Edward Norton as Lionel Essrog, dubbed “Motherless Brooklyn” by Frank Minna who rescued him from an orphanage in that borough (Some sly symbolism and foreshadowing at work here: The essrog or etrog, a citrus fruit, signifies “heart” in kabbalistic terms, and as used in the Jewish holiday of Sukkot represents those who know Torah and do good deeds). I love Norton’s look in this film—his face is now somewhat worn, with pouchy eyes and something loose about the chin. He wears a fedora well, and as a Tourette’s sufferer, his verbal tics are a cascade of rhymes and associations, and at times a mirror of his subconscious. When he blurts out “Kiss her face all night long” in front of an amused but sympathetic Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), you can only smile. Perhaps in compensation for his neurological problems, Lionel has been gifted with an eidetic memory which serves him particularly well as he seeks to solve his boss’s murder and take on Moses Randolph. Their ultimate showdown is one of the most satisfying in recent memory.
The urban grittiness in “Motherless Brooklyn,” seems to be a character in itself. This is classic film noir, albeit in color, and so accurate in its depiction of 1957 New York City I thought I had been transported back to my childhood (One minor quibble: There’s no mistaking the on-screen presence of at least two 1959-model cars—their tail fins are so sharp they could spear fish). In addition to neighborhood scenes, there’s a marvelous recreation of the old Penn Station, and a borough hall meeting-turned protest that’s the most realistic depiction of outraged citizenry vs. stubborn bureaucracy I’ve seen on film in a very long time. But what ultimately struck me about this movie is its high level of energy which, despite its length, never flags, a tribute to Edward Norton’s expertise again, this time as director.
Treat yourself—go see it.