I have been waiting for this film for approximately 15 years. I know I was in college the first time I read it, after hearing that my favorite actor at the time, Edward Norton (now he shares that title with Robin Williams) had been working on an adaptation. This is quite possibly my second favorite book ever (after LOTR, my definitive first fave) and I’ve been patiently waiting for this movie, having reread the book multiple times in the interim. It was no question I’d be at the very first show I could possibly make it to.
The story is about Lionel Essrog. After growing up in a Brooklyn orphanage with three other orphans who became like brothers, a man named Frank Minna takes the boys under his wing. Minna runs a tiny private investigation firm, but it’s mostly a front for some small time criminal dealings, and the now adult orphans have worked for him for years. Minna is killed under mysterious circumstances, and Lionel takes it upon himself to investigate exactly what Minna was into that got himself killed. Oh, and did I mention that Lionel has Tourette’s?
Even though I’ve read this book several times, I couldn’t tell you too many details of the plot beyond that. I still don’t even remember who the killer was (or at least the person who orchestrated the killing). But I could paint you vivid images of some of my favorite scenes and moments. For me, this book isn’t about the plot. It’s about getting inside Lionel’s head. To say it’s fascinating is an understatement, but I love figuring out what makes him tick (and tic) , finding empathy in our similarities, and just spending time with this character that is unlike any other that I’ve ever encountered. The actual events were secondary.
On that front, the film felt rather unsatisfying. Understandably the film does focus more on packing in the plot details than on just living with Lionel. I felt like I was definitely reading between the lines a bit, filling in the gaps with prior knowledge. For example, we do see Minna asking Lionel to tell him a joke, and I know it’s because Lionel’s condition makes it so difficult for him to ever get to the punchline, that ends up being funnier to Minna than the joke itself. I know it’s just the nature of film that I wouldn’t get the depth I wanted, but it still left me wanting.
Every time I read this book, I always pictured Edward Norton in the role that I knew he’d eventually take on. He captured Lionel’s tics perfectly, but I wasn’t blown away by his performance like I expected. There wasn’t much room in the film to capture Lionel’s arc and depth, so it ended up being more showy than substantive. There is a phenomenal supporting cast in play (Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, GuGu Mbatha-Raw, Willem DaFoe) and it was fun trying to figure out their connections to Norton (who called in a lot of favors) but none that really wowed me. I did love Bruce Willis as Frank Minna, and I wanted more of them. Their relationship in the story is such a central piece, that I felt like I didn’t get quite enough of it.
One major deviation that I probably should have mentioned by now is the setting. This late 90’s novel originally had a contemporary setting, but Norton moved it to the 50’s to give it a more film noir vibe to it. The mystery certainly does fit that, and the details of that enigma he’s trying to solve are so dense. There is so much going on in the story that I couldn’t even try to keep the details straight, I had to just trust that the pieces were fitting. At times, I did find myself completely swept up in it (for which I also credit the jazzy score that knew how to build tension), but mostly I just wanted to spend more time figuring out Lionel. I think this would likely take multiple viewings to get everything sorted out, but those viewings still won’t give me what I most want out of this story.
I’m really having a hard time rating this movie. Because my expectations are so high, there’s a lot that I love and a lot that fell short. It’s difficult to be completely subjective about it. I’m kinda grading on a curve, giving more points because i love the source, but at the same time detracting points because well they say the book is always better, and that is true here. It’s why I typically prefer to “go backwards” and read the book after watching the movie. If I had done that, then the pieces of the story would have fallen into place better (even though I couldn’t tell you how much they deviated beyond the setting) and I would have discovered all those personal moments with Lionel that I was missing. But if I hadn’t read the book, it’s an amazing story that I would have missed out on. It’s been my go-to recommendation for years and so many other friends have experienced it at my behest, and I wouldn’t trade that. I think that ultimately there is enough here that’s good, even if it didn’t live up to my expectations. I’ll just have to revisit the book again soon, which is something I’m always more than happy to do.
Motherless Brooklyn – \m/ \m/ \m/ \n