Sunday, May 24, 2020

Motherless Brooklyn: A jazz masterpiece

It was inevitable, of course; the moment the ink dries on a project such as this, it becomes incomplete.

Mere weeks after my two manuscripts went to bed last autumn, director/scripter/star Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn hit theaters.

The jazz tapestry is impressively diverse in this compelling and luxuriously atmospheric adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s award-winning 1999 crime novel of the same title. Composer Daniel Pemberton’s alternately agitated and poignant underscore is a treat; the cherry on top is a diegetic jazz club set of iconic covers, by a sassy combo ghosted by Wynton Marsalis and several top-flight associates.

“I wrote the arrangements,” Marsalis explained, “and we used some of our Juilliard students, fantastic young musicians, to play.”1

Lethem’s novel, although contemporary to its late 20th century arrival, has the attitude, atmosphere and plot stylings of 1940s and ’50s pulp detective thrillers. Honoring that style as a jumping-off point, Norton retained the primary character — and very little else — while bouncing him back to 1957, and dropping him into an entirely new story that blends fact, fiction and noir sensibilities in a manner we’ve not seen since 1974’s Chinatown.

Lethem’s intriguing protagonist now clashes with a facsimile of the clandestine, Tammany Hall-style empire ruled by the powerful Robert Moses, the real-world, mid-20th century developer/builder who — by manipulating politicians behind the scenes — ruthlessly transformed New York City into his vision of a metropolis. It’s a fascinating slice of history, which Norton cleverly blends with the character that he also plays in this thoroughly absorbing drama.

Lionel Essrog (Norton) and colleague Gilbert Coney (Ethan Suplee), operatives of a small-time detective agency run by Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), tag along when he arranges a meeting with shadowy figures left unspecified. Frank is more than a mere boss to Lionel; he’s also mentor, friend and protector. When Frank winds up dead, this hits Lionel hard, particularly since he’s far from “normal.” He’s obsessive/compulsive and also suffers from an uncontrollable tendency to erupt in nonsense speech: often punning, rhyming and “clanging” against what somebody else has just said. He’s constantly forced to apologize for the “glass in his brain” that prompts such spontaneous outbursts; we recognize this as Tourette Syndrome, a designation not at all familiar to the characters in this re-imagined 1950s version of Lethem’s novel.