Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Oct 12, 2019 1:05 pm 
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EDWARD NORTON: MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN (2019) - NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL

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GUGU MBATHA-RAW AND EDWARD NORTON IN MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN

Edward Norton's passion project complicates the Jonathan Lethem novel

The NYFF Closing Night film is the premiere of Edwards Norton's adaptation, a triumph over many creative obstacles through a nine-year development time, of Jonathan Lethem's 1999 eponymous novel. It concerns Lionel Essrog (played by Norton), a man with Tourette's Syndrome who gets entangled in a police investigation using the obsessive and retentive mind that comes with his condition to solve the mystery. Much of the film, especially the first half, is dominated by Lionel's jerky motions and odd repetitive outbursts, for which he continually apologizes. Strange hero, but Lethem's creation. To go with the novel's evocation of Maltese Falcon style noir flavor, Norton has recast it from modern times to the Fifties.

Leading cast members, besides Norton himself, are Willem Dafoe, Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, Cherry Jones, Bobby Cannavale and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. In his recasting of the novel, as Peter Debruge explains in his Variety review, Norton makes as much use of Robert Caro's The Power Broker, about the manipulative city planner Robert Moses, a "visionary" insensitive to minorities and the poor, as of Lethem's book. Alec Baldwn's "Moses Randolph" role represents the film's Robert Moses character, who is added into the world of the original novel.

Some of the plot line may become obscure in the alternating sources of the film. But clearly Lionel Essrog, whose nervous sensibility hovers over things in Norton's voiceover, is a handicapped man with an extra ability who's one of four orphans from Saint Vincent's Orphanage in Brooklyn saved by Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who runs a detective agency. When Minna is offed by the Mob in the opening minutes of the movie, Lionel goes chasing. Then he learns city bosses had a hand, and want to repress his efforts.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw's character, Laura Rose, who becomes a kind of love interest for Lionel Essrog, and likewise willem Dafoe's, Paul Randolph, Moses' brother and opponent, are additional key characters in the film not in the Johathan Lethem book. The cinematography is by the Mike Leigh regular (who produced the exquisite Turner), Dick Pope. He provides a lush, classic look.

Viewers will have to decide if this mixture of novel, non-fiction book, and period recasting works for them or not. For many the problem is inherent in the Lethem novel, that it's a detective story where, as the original Times reviewer Albert Mobilio said, "solving the crime is beside the point." Certainly Norton has created a rich mixture, and this is a "labour of love," "as loving as it is laborious, maybe," is how the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw put it, writing (generally quite favorably) from Toronto. In her intro piece for the first part of the New York Film Festival for the Times Manohla Dargis linked it with the difficult Albert Serra's Liberté with a one-word reaction: "oof," though she complemented these two as "choices rather than just opportunistically checked boxes." Motherless Brooklyn has many reasons for wanting to be in the New York Film Festival, and for the honor of Closing Night Film, notably the personal passion, but also the persistent rootedness in New York itself through these permutations.

Motherless Brooklyn, 144 mins., debuted at Telluride Aug. 30, 2019, showing at eight other festivals including Toronto, Vancouver, Mill Valley, and New York, where it was screened at the NYFF OCT. 11, 2019 as the Closing Night film. It opens theatrically in the US Nov. 1, 2019. Current Metascore 62%.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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