New York City, some time in the 1950s. The war has been won, and some businessmen have taken the lesson that US-America is #1 and anything is permissible with the application of a little force.
One of these businessmen is Moses Randolph, who comes straight of the pages of an Ayn Rand novel. He calls himself a builder and believes that he is responsible for most of the bridges connecting Manhattan to Brooklyn (Did he not even have a cook with him?) He is now engaged in a project to gentrify downtown New York, although he prefers to call it slum clearances.
The “slums” that are being cleared are perfectly habitable working class areas, largely inhabited by People of Colour. Yet they are getting in the way of Progress, as there’s money to be made from the new roads which are much more profitable than the old public transport system. Besides which, Randolph’s racism and sense of class superiority means that he doesn’t much care for the locals anyway.
Randolph is motivated by the feeling that right is on his side, and that he (and he alone) is entitled to break the laws which will be changed when Progress is realised. His law breaking does not just include using a mixture of cajolery and threats to force people out. He is also an unrepentent rapist. It is no coincidence that Randolph is played by Alec Baldwin, famous for imitating Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live.
Randolph comes into conflict, first with Laura Rose and Gabby Horowitz, respectively black and Jewish housing activists, and later with Lionel, a private detective. Lionel sometimes pretends to be a reporter called Jake, possibly in hommage to Jack Nicholson’s character in Chinatown. He also has Tourette’s – not the comic book version which consists purely of shouted swear words, but an ongoing commentary of his thought processes, which often include swear words, but more often the single word “If”.
Lionel is also an orphan, which led to the soubriquet “Motherless Brooklyn”, bestowed on him by his employer and mentor Frank. When Frank is killed on a case, Lionel is drawn into the world of Brooklyn jazz clubs, mobsters, and eventually Randolph’s shady business interests.
Many Film Noir clichés (let’s be nice and call them tropes) are present and correct. The men all wear trilbies, the gangsters carry heat (although this is satirised in the dialogue) and there is a tense scene at a locker in Penn station. And at a crucial time, the women are hidden away so that the men can exchange violent words and scowls.
And yet, Lionel is much less thuggish than your average noir hero. His “condition” gives him an air of childish vulnerability and even femininity, adding to the sense that this he is really one of the good guys. And the script is more articulate than you’d expect for the genre.
This is largely due to actor-writer-director Edward Norton, one of the most intelligent actors of his generation. This is, astoundingly, only his second film as director, after the decidedly average Keeping the Faith (although it is rumoured that he was responsible for most of the direction of the brilliant American History X, in which he starred). Unlike many cliché-ridden scripts, the characters here use real metaphors, and show an admirable control of language.
The cinematography is sumptuous, and is a beautiful depiction of 1950s New York. And while the film is languorous and is in no rush to reach its destination, it does not feel too long, even though it is nearly 2 ½ hours long (having said this, I repeat my belief that no film needs to be more than two hours long).
There are times when you lose track of who is doing what to whom, and exactly what the relationships are between the long list of characters. But this is not uncommon in Chandleresque films like this, especially for people with as little brain as myself. But the proof of the puddling is that I’m quite looking forward to going again and seeing what I missed last time.
Finally, the politics. Righteous politics do not necessarily a good film make, and sometimes in films that are too right on, the Important Message gets in the way of the plot. But I think that this one gets the balance just right. It covers real events when 1950s imperial arrogance destroyed poor communities at home, and yet the parallels with the current day are clear. At the same time, it does not crassly lay its message on with a trowel.
In Times Like These, we need films which combine hope with righteous anger, while giving us characters that we can root for. There also is a fantastic score, curated by Winston Marsalis with contributions from Thom Yorke and others. Motherless Brooklyn may not be perfect, but its a good tonic to help weather the current horrors.