Motherless Brooklyn15¦ Blu-ray, DVD
With two really big turns at the start of his career (1998’s American History X and Fight Club at the end of the nineties), it looked like Edward Norton was set to be in high demand, sitting pretty on that enviable A-list.
He even got to star in a Marvel flick in 2008 as The Incredible Hulk when it wasn’t nearly as fashionable as it has become.
And yet despite these impressive titles, his career never quite took off like his peers, resulting in fewer starring roles and more supporting ones.
This passion project, which he’s been trying to get off the ground for some time, having bought the rights to Jonathan Lethem’s novel of the same name in 1999, sees him both star in and direct.
New York City, in the 1950’s, and Lionel Essrog (Norton) is working as part of a detective agency for his father figure boss Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Frank gets tangled in a case that quickly goes awry, resulting in his demise.
Lionel is devastated by this loss, and despite his condition, suffering from ticks and a form of Tourette Syndrome as he does, he is determined to continue investigating Frank’s case.
By taking on the cover of an investigative journalist, Lionel digs deep and uncovers some murky goings-on in the city council, regarding so-called slums and housing development. What he quickly finds however, is that there’s a reason this scandal was buried deep, and the man behind it is keen to keep it that way, at any cost.
It’s easy to tell that Norton’s feature is a labour of love, as it’s a lovingly crafted piece of work. Despite the novel set in modern day, Norton has transposed the story to a more evocative time in history, shot with a beautiful sense of period. He’s also draped a remarkable jazz score over it, accompanied by a new track by Thom Yorke no less, which really helps the film sizzle.
It’s a testament to Norton’s talents that he’s attracted a strong cast too, including Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, Michael Kenneth Williams and Bobby Cannavale. Considering the film’s extremely tight budget of $26 million – which probably wouldn’t even cover the coffee account on a Marvel film – they’ve all no doubt turned up for him rather than their meagre fee.
Norton really squeezes every last dime out of that budget too, especially when you consider the film’s running time of nearly two and a half hours.
The story itself, which could almost be considered the bastard child of Chinatown as it explores similar themes of corruption, crimes and infidelity, is an intriguing watch, particularly as it embraces its neo-noir themes and sensibilities.
Kudos to Norton, who appears in nearly every scene, with his character trying his very best to not only hold it together considering his condition, but also by extension the film itself. The direction is slightly more pedestrian, and could have benefitted from having the likes of Scorsese behind the camera, but is still solid enough.
Brit Gugu Mbatha-Raw (soon to be seen in the upcoming Loki series) also manages to impress, and although the film lacks a strong femme fatale, she shines as a strong female character, who suddenly finds herself embroiled in the scandal.
Although the film is a tad self indulgent, with its running time probably a half hour too long, Norton delivers a truly impressive film, the likes of which are sadly all too rare these days. Although he returns to supportive duties in his next project, for his pal Wes Anderson’s latest outing, the film serves as a reminder that Norton‘s all round, considerable talents shouldn’t go to waste.