Big Town, Big Talk: On “Motherless Brooklyn”

By Charles TaylorFebruary 9, 2020

Big Town, Big Talk: On “Motherless Brooklyn”
OVER THE LAST FEW YEARS in New York City, the pay phones have been replaced by kiosks where you can consult a map on the internet and recharge your cell phone. On both sides of each of these kiosks is a video screen running a collection of advertising, subway and bus info, headlines, bits of city-related trivia, and, interspersed among these, quotes from various luminaries about New York. The quotes follow a theme: the city’s unceasing energy, its endless opportunities, its constant reinvention, and every time I see one it feels as if I’m being asked to participate in the delusion that the city they describe still exists.

Right-wing politicians can still get by with cracks about New York City not really being America (even as they are happy to invoke the memory of 9/11). Even without opening their mouths tourists from other states still stick out among the pedestrians and subway riders. But now more than ever they can come to New York and never deviate from the same chains of stores and restaurants they patronize back home. If they were inclined to look for the real New York, where, apart from the historic and civic and cultural monuments, would they go? Not to the 6th Avenue blocks between Houston and 14th, or, increasingly, the same blocks on Broadway, where storefront after storefront sits vacant. Here and in other parts of the city with the same high vacancy, this suits the real estate moguls fine. They charge a rent no retailer or restaurateur can afford, let the place stay empty, and ensure themselves a nice tax deduction. Tourists wouldn’t go to see St. Vincent’s, the Greenwich Village hospital where New Yorkers flocked on the morning of 9/11 to donate blood (which, there being no survivors, wasn’t needed), and which, years earlier, had been the first and biggest AIDS ward on the East Coast, a place where young men went to die in the hopeless early days of that crisis. It’s now luxury condos, and the Village has no hospital. They might, if they cared to look, find pockets that still feel like New York in some Hell’s Kitchen side blocks, and in the quiet blocks of the East 30s where you can still pass by small storefronts of cobblers, barbers, coffee shops. But right now New York City as the healthy collection of small neighborhoods that Jane Jacobs championed (and E. B. White sappily romanticized), or as a place to attract and sustain a creative class seems dead. The businesses that market creativity, especially publishing, might still be here, but there’s no sense of a scene, a group, a defining milieu as there was for the beats and the modern artists in the ’50s, or the punks and the first hip-hop DJ’s in the ’70s. Given the outrageous cost of living here, the increasing sense that the goods and services offered are not so much different from anywhere else, why would a young person starting out in the arts today head to New York? You can still have a band in Cincinnati, still paint in Detroit, still write your novel in Richmond’s Carytown.

The “New York isn’t as good as it was in [insert lionized era here]” bitch session is a time-honored tradition. But there’s a difference between not caring for the creative class revered by a new generation and there not being that class to revere or despise at all. It’s impossible to look at New York today and imagine it being the inspiration and incubator for the disparate likes of Frank O’Hara or Rona Jaffe or Patti Smith or Barbra Streisand or the New York Dolls or the Brill Building songwriters. Nostalgia is a perilous state for the artist or the critic to take up residence in, but when a culture has reduced itself to retread and revenue, you might as well long for a past with some substance to it.


Maybe this is why the 1950s New York in director, screenwriter, and star Edward Norton’s film of Jonathan Lethem’s novel Motherless Brooklyn feels alive in a way that the real New York City no longer does. It’s not a question of bustling crowds — apart from the principals and the occasional audience at a jazz club or a political gathering, there are few other people in the movie. And it’s not because the film presents a spruced-up vision of a gleaming past. As shot by the great Dick Pope (who has shot all of Mike Leigh’s movies since 1990) and designed by Beth Mickle, this is a city of streets lined with brownstones that have seen better days; civic buildings so imposing they seem irretrievably cut off from the people they serve (the exception, of course, is the 42nd Street reading room of the New York Public Library); offices with green walls and heavy-walnut furniture that was probably new in the ’30s and would give off a sense of gloom on the sunniest day; spare one-room apartments that look like they are waiting to leap back in the book of Edward Hopper reproductions they came from; a jazz club whose battered outside in a battered neighborhood give no indication that the hottest bebop blows inside every night.

Lethem’s novel, published and set in 1999, was conceived as a dual homage to both Brooklyn (the borough where Lethem grew up) and to the American detective novel. Norton’s film sailed through theaters in a week or two last fall, receiving middling reviews. But Motherless Brooklyn is close to a classic, a rueful and melancholy noir inside an ambitious vision of American corruption and disenfranchisement. The choice to move the story back 40 years and to expand it from a detective fiction (a wholly original one, it should be said) to a collision of historical and imagined characters is as radical and brilliant as the reconstruction Greta Gerwig has done on Little Women. It would be easy to think, and Norton has suggested in interviews, that he intends the film to work as a metaphor for our current predicament, the citizens of the Republic reduced to pawns for American power gone mad. But if that’s all the film were, it would be little more than the noir Crucible, and it’s much too rich, the world it creates too strong and too singular to be reduced to mere topicality.

The plot’s impetus is the murder of Frank Minna (Bruce Willis, who has so much effortless authority, so much believability in his small role it’s a reminder that he has never gotten his due as an actor), a Brooklyn detective killed in the midst of working a mysterious deal. His employee, Lionel Essrog (Norton), who has Tourette’s, proceeds to investigate who killed his boss, an odyssey that leads Lionel into the crosshairs of Moses Randolph (i.e., Robert Moses and played by Alec Baldwin), the city planner who wields the real power in New York and who’s unconcerned about the residents he’ll displace to realize his vision. Randolph’s antagonist is Gabby Horowitz (i.e., Jane Jacobs and played by Cherry Jones), head of the city’s racial discrimination board and the most vocal public opponent of Randolph’s vision. In the midst of this is Gabby’s assistant Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) a young African-American woman who somehow holds the information Frank was seeking.

Norton does for New York what Roman Polanski did for Los Angeles in Chinatown (a film which Norton references in one scene), locating a city’s majesty in the corruption of the vision that brought that majesty to realization. But Norton has made the better film. Chinatown’s brilliance was done in by its acceptance of the corruption it depicted. The movie’s post-Watergate cynicism told the audience there was no use trying to defeat the rot because nothing would ever change, and Roman Polanski’s sense of morbid glee at the movie’s horrors turned what should have been a tragedy into something like what EC Comics would have come up with if they attempted noir. Norton’s ambition never overshadows the human element. The actors are too vivid, too distinct to have the vitality of their characters smothered by the machinations around them. Even the most vulnerable, Laura, whom Mbatha-Raw plays with a sense of deep worry that ripples like a discordant wave through everything she does, is never a victim. Mbatha-Raw’s scenes with Norton, in which Laura tentatively reaches out to Lionel, are delicate yet sturdy.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a vision of the corruption of power with anything like this movie’s playfulness. The movie isn’t self-conscious. Norton doesn’t put the period recreation in quotation marks but takes palpable joy in that recreation, and in the intersection of the movie’s collision of characters. The picture is a dream of ’50s New York in which Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs are already mythic figures fighting the battles that will result in Moses’s defeat 10 years later; in which Moses has an eccentric-genius brother (Willem Dafoe, giving shading and a prickly pathos to a character who could have been a mere oddball) who seems to have in him the potential of becoming both the Greenwich Village eccentric Joe Gould (whom Joseph Mitchell memorably profiled) and Theodore Kaczynski; in which an unnamed bop trumpeter (clearly based on Miles Davis, and played by the impeccable Michael K. Williams as a sleek figure of imposing sleepy-eyed cool, utterly still yet never missing a thing in the room) is Lionel’s unlikely ally.

In Lethem’s novel, Lionel compared Tourette’s to being one of the characters in a cartoon by Mad Magazine’s Don Martin, a mismatch of clumsy and delicate parts assembled into a tottering tower of obloids. In Norton’s film, Lionel talks about Tourette’s as an uncontrollable impulse to take apart and rearrange words and sounds until he hits the right combination. When Norton’s Lionel has an attack, he turns his head to the left, riffing on the words he’s just heard. It’s like seeing Jerry Lewis channeling a poem by Kurt Schwitters. There’s a rhythm and logic to what spritzes out of Lionel’s mouth. (The people who love Lionel best, like Frank, appreciate the invention and humor in his outbursts.) Perhaps the movie’s wittiest invention is that when Lionel heads into a Harlem jazz club and hears bebop, it both sets him off and makes perfect sense. How could it not? A music simultaneously so precise and free, ever ready to abandon the melody for the musical squiggle that sounds right at the moment.

There’s no sentimentality about either Norton’s conception of Lionel or his hugely likable performance. Lionel isn’t a damaged hero, he’s an original, and he turns out to be a good detective as well. Norton gives Baldwin two scenes where the actor is saddled with speeches explaining the nature of power, and Baldwin overacts accordingly. The scenes are out of sync with the spirit of the movie. In Motherless Brooklyn, individuality floats free of power. Moses, and to a sadder extent his brother, are done in by enslavement to their visions. But Lionel and the jazz trumpeter and Gabby and Laura are improvisers. They’ll get by.

It seems strange to describe a movie with that sliver of hope as a noir, but Motherless Brooklyn is very much one — not because there’s a private eye at the center or because of its revelations of political corruption, but because it is profoundly at home with solitude and loneliness and even sees something approaching contentment in that solitude. Lionel’s room, with its neatly made bed and dresser and unframed mirror and umber walls, is like one of the rooms glimpsed in Hopper paintings. And yet when we see Lionel sitting in an armchair, the nighttime Brooklyn Bridge outside his window, his butterscotch cat in his lap, jazz on the phonograph, smoking the dope that calms his head, it’s a vision of peace, a refuge, a place Lionel has made his own. And Norton has made a place of his own in contemporary American commercial cinema. Mid-budget adult dramas (often based on acclaimed novels) used to be common in Hollywood. It’s not just that Motherless Brooklyn isn’t another superhero movie or a sequel to a picture that was no good in the first place or another crappy animation. It’s that Norton has had the nerve to reshape the material rather than merely adapt it, and to locate his concerns about American corruption and the people who get left behind in the past, and this at a time when Americans seem to have no knowledge of even the recent past, or even consider the past as a real place.

In real life, in 1968, Jane Jacobs led the movement that kept Robert Moses from driving a highway through the West Village and thus ended his reign. Motherless Brooklyn doesn’t end with an assurance that New York will be spared from the arrogance and wreckage of power. And so it’s perhaps fitting that in the final scene, Lionel and Laura have escaped the city for a quieter place where they can welcome each other into their individual solitudes. It’s not a scene suited to the bebop that plays elsewhere in the movie, but there is a jazz performance that would suit the moment: Ella Fitzgerald singing, “Get out of town / before it’s too late, my love.” New York might not survive. These still-to-be lovers will.


Charles Taylor is the author of Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ’70s. He lives in New York.

LARB Contributor

Charles Taylor is the author of Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ’70s. He lives in New York.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!