A wild whirlwind of a mess, without any coherence, without even a guiding principle.
Edward Norton bought the rights to Jonathan Lethem’s “Motherless Brooklyn” when it was first published in 1999. It was a good time for the young actor: he was riding high on an Oscar nomination for “American History X,” was about to co-star in “Fight Club,” and would soon direct his first feature “Keeping the Faith.” “Motherless Brooklyn” eventually fell into development hell, stymied by production delays and script changes and busy schedules. Meanwhile, Norton weathered his own career highs and lows throughout the 2000s, including a brief, doomed stint with the MCU in its early years, evolving into a reliable supporting player this past decade. But he never abandoned “Motherless Brooklyn,” or his unique take on the novel. Now, after twenty years, it has finally arrived, and sadly, it’s a dud.
“Motherless Brooklyn” retains a few essential elements from the novel: the protagonist, private investigator Lionel Essrog (Norton); the character’s Tourette Syndrome; and the novel’s first chapter, featuring a stakeout gone wrong that ends with the death of his mentor Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). He jettisons almost everything else from the source material, most notably the time period, which he shifts from the ’90s to the ’50s, and the plot, which features a Robert Moses-esque figure, Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), whose urban development projects threatens to displace black families from their Brooklyn neighborhoods. In the film, Essrog works together with activist Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) to discover the link between Minna’s murder and Randolph’s new real estate project.
Lethem reportedly signed off on Norton’s version of his work, which stems from the director’s concerns that characters inspired by post-war gumshoes would read as ironic if they were traipsing around ’90s New York. Yet, the characters’ period-appropriate language and demeanor doesn’t suddenly negate the film’s many conceptual flaws. Its “Chinatown”-meets-“The Power Broker” narrative sprawls too far in every direction for it to properly communicate Norton’s considerable interest in mid-’50s New York as ground zero for institutional racism and corruption. The insights are obvious and the surprises never accumulate any emotional weight. Even if the plot was focused or compelling enough to retain audience interest across its bloated runtime, the film’s large ensemble cast can’t seem to evince believability as hardboiled archetypes. Most everyone, save for possibly Mbatha-Raw and Michael K. Williams, comes across like they’re playing dress-up. And the less said about Norton’s strained attempts to connect his “Motherless Brooklyn” to our political climate the better. If it weren’t simply relegated to allusions in the plot, it might have been fine, but Baldwin’s performance is specifically designed to recall Trump in cringeworthy ways. He even recites key phrases uttered by our President, e.g. “I moved on her…”
Maybe if Norton had been faithful to Lethem’s book, “Motherless Brooklyn” would have been more successful, but even a straightforward rendering would have to reckon with translating Essrog’s neurological disorder to the screen. In the novel, Lethem uses Essrog’s Tourette’s primarily as a linguistic device, to illustrate how the character mentally plays with language as a deduction tool. Naturally, that goes by the wayside in a filmic version, leaving an actor of Norton’s caliber to properly bring it to life. Unfortunately, Norton never quite organically integrates his character’s Tourette’s into the overall performance, i.e. he primarily breaks up his otherwise standard noir leading man theatrics with “Rain Man”-like outbursts. The fact that you can mentally bifurcate his performance into two modes indicates that it’s not convincing in the sum of its parts. That’s putting aside the problematic minefield of an able-minded actor playing this character at all.
There are a few winning moments in “Motherless Brooklyn”—a dance scene between Norton and Mbatha-Raw features genuinely tender chemistry, and Norton imbues the opening sequence with some necessary tension—and yet the film feels both rudderless and hollow from the jump. It’s a shame that such an arduous journey from page to screen produced such an inconsequential creation.
In Kazik Radwanski’s “Anne at 13,000 ft,” Anne (Deragh Campbell) works at a Toronto daycare with her soon-to-be-married friend Sarah (Dorothea Paas). Though Anne connects with the kids in her care, her cheerful disposition barely masks her turbulent mental state, which comes in the forms of anxiety and depression. She bickers with her fellow teachers, who pick on her for not following the district rules, and struggles with social faux pas involving her boyfriend Matt (Matt Johnson), whom she introduces to her parents too fast. Sometimes her recklessness affects her work, but it primarily weighs down her aimless personal life. Anne’s life on the ground can’t compete with the high of skydiving, which she has been chasing ever since she first jumped out of a plane at Sarah’s bachelorette party.
The skydiving-as-emotional-serenity metaphor might be a tad hoary, especially in moments like when Anne stands on the daycare center roof to recapture the feeling of being in the air. Nevertheless, Campbell’s spiky-cum-vulnerable performance combined with Radwanski’s intimate direction creates a portrait of a woman in crisis that manifests itself in low-boil unease. Radwanski takes a playful approach to his subject’s emotional volatility by placing her in a high-stress work environment; Anne might not always be up to the responsibilities of dealing with children, especially when she’s hungover or depressed, but the workplace isn’t exactly supportive or healthy either. Her bristly demeanor bounces off her environments until it creates a feedback loop of instability, neatly captured by Radwanski’s handheld style, which moves into uncomfortable close-ups and generates tension even in gentle spaces. It’s only the scenes of Anne prepping for her next skydiving run, waiting to feel the adrenaline rush of falling from a great height, that feature a woman at peace.
Federico Veiroj’s “The Moneychanger” chronicles the tragicomic rise-and-relative-fall of Humberto Baruse (Daniel Handler), a schmuck whose lack of conscience and economic savvy helped him launder money for unsavory clients through the neutral Uruguay for over two decades. We watch as Baruse’s inability to decline illegal transactions both provide him with material gain and degrade large parts of his soul. His reckless personal nature alienates him from his comically domineering wife Gudrun (Dolores Fonzi), destroys his health, ruins his business, and threatens his safety. Yet, Baruse’s blank savant-like expression endears him to many and masks his cunning. His general haplessness affords him sympathy but his low-key ruthlessness and indifference to collateral damage puts him in line with the gangsters who patrol his office.
Like other films of its ilk, “The Moneychanger” explains in no uncertain terms why financial malfeasance has been part of society since the beginning (the film opens with Jesus throwing moneychangers, people like Baruse, out of the temple) and how those in power write the rules so that corruption can be accepted without complaint. Handler’s comic performance and Veiroj’s matter-of-fact style do a good job of setting the film apart from its peers. Moral handholding has been replaced by casual, unfettered irony, with Handler’s shifting eyebrows and pained visage acting as a guide through an ethically compromised world. Like Scorsese’s gangsters, Baruse looks to the church, particularly the choir, to wash away his sins while monologuing self-aware diatribes about how he’s the root of evil. Hypocrisy abounds, so when his wife ball-busts him and controls his coffee intake along a multi-mile radius, his plight might be a source of comedy but hardly pity. He’s earned his fair share of suffering.
It’s all fairly straightforward, but credit to Veiroj for emphasizing the general unsexiness of such behavior, emphasized by the film’s earth-heavy tones befitting the period aesthetic. Everyone might be wearing fancy suits, but cash will be stuffed into them like a duffel bag. Baruse might be hobnobbing with the powerful, but he still has to return home to a resentful family. When the inevitable heart attack arrives, it levels Baruse to the land of the mortals. Except that Veiroj emphasizes that he’s been there the whole time, even if he doesn’t realize it.
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