(director/writer: Edward Norton; screenwriter: novel by Jonathan Lethem; cinematographer: Dick Pope; editor: Joe Klotz; music: Daniel Pemberton; cast:  Edward Norton (Lionel Essrog), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Laura Rose), Bobby Cannavale (Tony Vermonte), Cherry Jones (Gabby Horowitz), Leslie Mann (Julia Minna), Michael Kenneth Williams (Trumpet Man), Dallas Roberts (Danny Fantl), Ethan Suplee (Gil), Alec Baldwin (Moses Randolph), Willem Dafoe (Paul Randolph), Bruce Willis (Frank Minna), Radhu Spinghel (Giant), Peter Lewis (Mayor), Robert  Ray Wisdom (Billy Rose), Nelson Avidon (Gleason, reporter on the NY Post), Josh Pais (Leiberman); Runtime: 144; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Bill Migliore, Edward Norton, Gigi Pritzker, Rachel Shane, Michael Bederman; Warner Bros. Pictures; 2019)

“This could have been a great film with a more experienced director.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Writer-director-star Edward Norton (“Keeping The Faith”) aims for Polanski’s Chinatown of L.A. but misses by many miles, in this misguided but ambitious adaptation. Norton is no Polanski and his uneven direction misses its mark in several areas (mainly by executing a confusing story, a story that loses steam before its big reveal in the third act. It’s also dull and much too long).

It tells the story of a greedy for power despotic figure, a power broker, the film’s villain, Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin). He’s likened to the real Robert Moses, “the master builder”, who was the polarizing figure lauded as a ‘man of the people.’ He was the New York City commissioner, with unlimited power, known for building many parks, Jones Beach, bridges and highways, but was also reputed to be a bigot.

It’s a 1950s government political corruption film set in Brooklyn, and filled with a mixed bag of beautiful and awkward scenes, and too many one-dimensional characters. The drama is loosely based on Jonathan Lethem’s
1999 prizewinning novel, set in the 1990s. Its gimmick, which handicaps the film, is that Norton plays the lead character, a private detective suffering from Tourette syndrome (though it’s called that in the book, it’s not called that in this film). Norton’s condition has him at times snapping his head to the side, having spontaneous facial tics,  twitching, and saying incomprehensible things such as “Name it, claim it, shame it!”. The Norton character describes his condition as feeling “like having glass in your head.”

In the 1950s, in Brooklyn, a young Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) works as a private detective for a small firm run by Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), whereby all the private detectives in the struggling small firm–Tony (
Bobby Cannavale), Gil (Ethan Suplee) and Danny (Dallas Roberts)–wear fedoras and are loyal to Frank. Frank and Lionel were both in a Catholic orphanage in Brooklyn, where the older Frank looked after the handicapped kid, suffering from a brain condition, who was placed there when his mom died when he was six. When Frank returned after serving in the war, he hired Lionel. He never called him by his proper name, but always called him Brooklyn while the others in the detective agency called him Freakshow. The only advantage Lionel has in life, is his “Rain Man” photographic memory.

Brooklyn’s supportive mentor boss is killed by mobsters in an alley in Queens while working on a case he kept the others in the dark on, and even when questioned by Brooklyn before dying refused to say why he was killed or who was behind it. After Willis was killed in the opening scene, the film’s most exciting one, the air goes out of the film.

Frank’s sour pill wife Julia (Leslie Mann) inherits the firm but is not interested in her hubby’s death or running the place, and appoints Tony to be in charge of running the firm. Tony and Gil team-up to take the money cases, while Danny and Brooklyn try to get payback by finding their boss’s killer. Though Brooklyn does most of the investigating after Danny takes a beating and drops out of the investigation.

Brooklyn pieces together the puzzle by first realizing Frank was chasing down a black woman, Laura Rose (
Gugu Mbatha-Raw ), living in Harlem and frequenting a jazz club located in her building. Following her shows her involvement with the housing activist’s Gabby Horowitz (Cherry Jones) and her protests against developers ruining black city neighborhoods so that well-connected developers could move the blacks out by designating their neighborhoods as slums and replace their homes with high-cost new homes.
Brooklyn’s wild hunches connect him to the following people: Laura Rose, who turns out to be a lawyer working with Gabby for equal-housing; the Harlem jazz club owner
(Robert Ray Wisdom); the featured jazz trumpeter at the club (Michael Kenneth Williams) and a mysterious raving lunatic (Willem Dafoe). All these folks connect with the unelected city power broker Moses Randolph, the great builder who runs things in the city without any interference and is the man behind the program of “slum removal” or, to put it another way, “Negro removal.”

The scenes at the club have the great
Wynton Marsalis playing the trumpet for the Trumpet Man, who has befriended Brooklyn and is sympathetic to his condition–likening his head condition to the way he feels the music in his head when playing and becomes down when not playing.

It’s an earnest film, whose political convictions are on the money, but whose story has too many awkward moments and is too murky. Also it’s unfortunately more about the real-life Moses story than the book’s fictitious Moses story. This could have been a great film with a more experienced director, instead it labors just to be a so-so one.

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REVIEWED ON 8/15/2020  GRADE: B-