I was late to Edward Norton’s 2019 film adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn, mainly because the reviews I came across on the film had been critical of how far Norton strayed from Lethem’s source material. I’m happy to report that Norton’s film is ambitious, intelligent, dense, and makes for a fine and very different adaptation of Lethem’s book. I’d go so far as to say that Norton’s film is stronger than Lethem’s original work, but “the book was better” or the less often “the film was better” stance is hardly ever a fair argument for judging one text’s quality. That being said, here it is difficult to discuss Norton’s film without comparing and contrasting it to Lethem’s book.
There are some major differences between the two texts. While Lethem’s novel took place in 1999, Norton’s film takes place in the 1950s. In Lethem’s book, the protagonist Lionel seemed and acted like a much younger person while in Norton’s film he’s clearly in his late 40s. In both texts, Lionel is a private investigator working for the Brooklyn snoop Frank Minna along with three other hoodlums Minna once rescued from a Catholic orphanage along with Lionel. When Minna is killed pursuing a job, Lionel has to put his intelligence and investigative skills towards finding his boss’s and surrogate father’s killer. In Lethem’s book, Minna is a small-time hood with a buried heart of gold whereas Norton’s Minna is played briefly and touchingly by a far more dapper and warmer Bruce Willis. Norton plays Lionel, and convincingly conveys the character’s constant Tourette’s syndrome outbursts. In the book, Lethem paints Lionel’s tics and convoluted thought patterns in heartbreaking density. In the film, Norton displays his character’s verbal outbursts effectively and without relying on excessive VoiceOver narration.
Norton’s decision to move to film’s setting from the end of the 20th century towards its postwar period was not an unmerited one. Lethem’s detective novel is a noir piece, and the story lends itself well to a directly noir postwar period. Like the shell-shocked WWII veteran Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Lionel is an outsider unable to get proper institutional treatment for his affliction even as so many benefit from the postwar economic boom, but is saved by an equally benevolent and manipulative father figure (Philip Seymour Hoffman in PTA’s film, Bruce Willis here).
In Norton’s film, the real antagonist behind Minna’s murder and seemingly every injustice in New York City is Moses Randolph, a city planner played with prudent villainy by Alec Baldwin and clearly based on the real-life New York City planner Robert Moses. Randolph has maneuvered himself into multiple city commissioner positions and created his own Bureau Authority. He is enabled by a team of bureaucrats set to profit greatly from clearing African “slums” in order to build costly housing for white families. Like Daniel Plainview in PTA’s There Will Be Blood and Noah Cross in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Randolph is even willing to harm his own blood relatives, including his brother played by Willem Dafoe, in order to amass power and control.
The scholar Fredric Jameson has written extensively about how the conspiracy film is a poor man’s version of cognitive mapping, the impossible goal of situating oneself within global capitalism. What Norton accomplishes, intentionally or not, is an attempt at cognitive mapping. Just as Lionel’s mind leads him down an uncontrollable path of mental obsessions and verbal tics and outbursts, Randolph’s ever-expanding reach over land, roads, parks, beaches, and buildings creates a clear and complicated flow of money, human connections, and human and financial costs. Just as Lionel’s mental space is a mess, so is the sprawl of global capitalism. This is what Norton’s film so brilliantly and effectively conveys and what most film critics seem to have overlooked.