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‘Motherless Brooklyn’: Edward Norton in triple-threat tour-de-force

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Official Trailer for ‘Motherless Brooklyn’

Edward Norton Returns to Director’s Chair for 1950s Detective Drama

The last time Edward Norton directed, it was nineteen years ago for a forgotten Ben Stiller romantic comedy called “Keeping the Faith.” Since then, the three time Oscar nominated actor has remained primarily in front of the camera, starring in several iconic movies across the twentieth century and only occasionally dabbling in producing, cinematography, or editing.

On November 1st, however, Norton returns to the director’s chair once again, this time for a gritty, 1950s detective drama based off of a screenplay he wrote. The film is called “Motherless Brooklyn.” It is an adaptation of a 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel by Jonathan Lethem. Norton’s screenplay of the story will go down as his first writing credit.

Starring a Detective with a Disability, Never-Before-Seen on the Silver Screen

“Motherless Brooklyn” is about a private investigator working in mid-twentieth century New York City—Brooklyn, obviously. Played by Norton himself, the private eye is named Lionel Essrog, and despite his daring profession, he is an estranged and lonely man who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome

Stuttering, twitchy, and seemingly nervous all the time, Essrog is not your everyday Hollywood protagonist. He is vulnerable and smitten with anxiety, as the movie will show by telling the story from his point of view. Essrog is a new kind of character for Norton as well, for the actor usually plays the serious, smart, but oftentimes devilish lead. Not since “Primal Fear”, where he played a schizophrenic murder suspect, with a severe stutter, has he dabbled in this type of over-the-top character portrayal. That performance was his career debut, and breakthrough, earning a Golden Globe supporting actor win and an Oscar nomination for same.

In the film, Essrog’s only friend is Frank Minna, his mentor played by Bruce Willis. After Minna is murdered, the crux of the story centers on Essrog trying to figure out who done it. Using his condition not as a disability, but as a resource for understanding and analyzing situations, Essrog employs his Tourette’s to his advantage, and they aid him in cracking the case.

Classic Oscar Bait Elements, perhaps, but Will it Play in 2020?

It is a classic detective story with an original twist. Everything about “Motherless Brooklyn” fits in with the bygone noir genre, but instead of having the leading character be overly hard-boiled, he is highly susceptible and must navigate a corrupt urban world while also dealing with his own inner-turmoil.

Alongside Norton and Willis, Alec Baldwin and Willem Dafoe also star in the film, making the cast pretty star studded. On top of disability, the movie’s themes will also include power, its limits, its ethics, and the layers of depravity that surround it. While the conventional noir genre may be dead in the twenty-first century, those themes have proven themselves timeless. Like any good noir film, “Motherless Brooklyn” is labyrinth-like in its structure and bound to throw a couple of unexpected narrative turns our way.

Although film noir may not be on the brink of a revival, “Motherless Brooklyn” could still be a stimulating project. The movie has clear talent and thematic relevance on its side, and the script is based off of popular source material that feels both familiar and fresh. 

Given its 1950s setting and retro noir aspects, “Motherless Brooklyn” is not exactly doing anything to combat a whitewashed Hollywood. However, assuming that the movie handles it with appropriate sensitivity, we applaud Norton for bringing matters of disability to the big screen. Let’s hope that he plays the part with the grace it deserves, does right by the misunderstood trope, and perhaps even demystifies a few assumptions about the condition in the process.

Motherless Brooklyn Movie Poster

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