By John H. Foote
Edward Norton established himself as one of the most electrifying and gifted of American actors in the nineties with an array of brilliant performances. Seared into minds of everyone who saw the film, that arrogant raising of the eyebrows and smile after brutally killing a group of thieves intent on robbing him made Norton, muscles rippling, a swastika holding tattooed into his chest, a symbol of pure evil. American History X (1999) was an average film, but Norton’s seething, vulnerable performance as Derek was stunning, earning the actor an Academy Award nomination. His performance was not just the best of the year, it remains one of the finest performances given by an actor in the last sixty years of film.
His work before that was astounding, his debut in Primal Fear (1996) superb, equally outstanding in The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), and after American History X, where he was seething in Fight Club (1999) opposite an equally brilliant Brad Pitt.
In the years since he has remained among the elite of American actors, brilliant if Frida (2002), 25th Hour (2002), Death to Smoochy (2002), The Painted Veil (2006), The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) and Oscar-nominated again in Birdman (2014) as a notoriously difficult actor.
It took twenty years for Norton to finally bring his new film to the screen, but it seems worth the wait. The gifted artist directs, wrote and has the challenging lead role of Lionel, a private investigator with Tourette’s syndrome, causing him to explode with nonsensical words that often rhyme, and touch. An example? Ending a sentence with Frank he might add, “Frank a dank, a Reno, a Peno, a roo!” It does not happen with every sentence but it does happen and takes some getting used too, but never does Norton allow it to distract from his performance.
From the outset, we know Norton will be great as Lionel because Edward Norton is a truly great actor. Will however his directing talent match his acting ability?
Motherless Brooklyn is an ambitious film, a fifties noir set in Brooklyn where you could get hurt, or worse for snooping in business not your own. When his boss, friend, and mentor Frank (Bruce Willis) is murdered, Lionel wants to know why, and struggles with why no one else really cares? So, he digs and digs some more before exposing corruption in the city that could bring down some very important, very powerful people. The higher up he goes the greater the dangers, not only for himself but for people he has befriended along the way.
The performances in the film are very good, the great strength of the movie. Alec Baldwin can be an insidious force and presence when he is given the chance and he gets exactly that as a powerful City commissioner with a vision. Willem Dafoe has a quirky part as the man’s brother, a gifted engineer who had a very different vision. I quite liked Bruce Willis as Frank, but we saw so little of him it was a disappointment when he was killed so early.
The lovely Gugu Mbatha-Raw is luminous as Laura, the pretty young employs of the city with good intentions who realizes she is in dangerous waters. I did question whether the interracial romance between her and Norton would have been so easily accepted in fifties New York? Maybe, but it struck false to me. So did some of Norton’s choices as a filmmaker, a common issue with new directors, trying to get arty. During a beautiful scene between the two lovers in her bedroom, we suddenly cut to her dresser? Um, why? It felt very awkward.
Small quibbles though with a film reminding us of what a profoundly great actor Norton is. His Lionel is fearless, fiercely loyal to his late friend and relentless. He knows he should stop, but he cannot, not for Frank, not for what this man gave him.
Fifties Brooklyn is created with spectacular detail, and there is never a doubt as to where we are. If only Norton the Director was as assured as Norton the actor. A good movie, not a great one.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”