Story: Lionel Essrog has one hell of a brain. His ability to remember things is practically photographic. But his Tourette syndrome makes connecting with others rough in 1950s NYC. So when his mentor and father-figure Frank gets gunned down, Lionel is determined to find out why, and get some payback.
Genre I’d put it in: Successful Adaptations
Remake, Sequel, Based-On, or Original: Based on Jonathan Lethem’s award winning novel of the same name.
Gotta say: Norton is an incredibly talented actor who throws himself into his roles. With Brooklyn, he does triple duty as writer, director and star, and his love for this story shows through in the finished film. Brooklyn is both a love letter to 1950s New York and a scathing indictment of our current political system. At once low key and hard hitting, this is a film that is unapologetic in its clear-eyed look at power and discrimination. It’s a whole lot to take in, but at two and a half hours, the time flies thanks to Norton’s quietly powerful performance, and a cast of heavy hitters that all bring their A-game.
The novel is set in the 90s, but Brooklyn makes the wise decision to set the story in the 50s. It’s a better fit with the gumshoe aesthetic that permeates the narrative, yet the film has a commonplace feel that keeps things from becoming cloyingly nostalgic. The visuals here fit perfectly, and the art department did their due diligence in getting everything perfect, and damn the costuming y’all; it’s perfection. (Note: nah, I wasn’t around in the 50s; shut it, you. But everything here sure does quack like a 50s duck, at least from all the American Movie Classics I ingested when I was a pup.) The cinematography is suitably gritty and bleak, even in scenes where the action is set in the corridors of power. Brooklyn seems to say that there’s no place that is untouched by corruption of power, lending gravitas to even the comedic moments.
Before I go any further, I have to address the Tourette’s in the room. Brooklyn treats Lionel as best as anyone can; as a complete and whole person who just happens to have a disorder. His lifelong friends simultaneously rib him about it while accepting him as one of their own. Norton doesn’t whitewash the disorder or how people react to it, nor does he treat it as an insurmountable affliction. It’s part and parcel of who Lionel is, and the grace with which Norton portrays all facets of the character is a welcome change to The Other (or worse yet, The Magical Disability) that’s typically portrayed on screen.
The rest of the cast deliver performances worthy of their massive talents. Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Laura Rose blends naivete and intelligence, Bobby Cannivale’s Tony is Lionel’s BFF that wants more than the life they’ve got, and Michael Kennety Williams plays a talented trumpeter – most likely based on Miles Davis – with a world weary knowledge. Ooh ooh – there’s also Cherry Jones as a grass-roots activist, Willem Dafoe as a mysterious rabblerouser, and of course Alec Baldwin channeling his inner
Trump Boss Tweed as Moses Randolph (loosely based on real life city planner Robert Moses). Each actor delivers a stand-out performance, yet in Brooklyn they blend together to form a captivating whole.
The quiet build of Brooklyn may not be the kind of lavish cinema epic that Oscar voters seem to crave, yet I hope that it gets attention this season. I’ve never been one to dig noir films, yet Brooklyn caught my attention and held it for over two hours. That’s an accomplishment worth celebrating.
#Protip: While Williams is a great actor, Trumpet Man’s amazing trumpet playing is done by Wynton Marsalis. Marsalis also performs a jazzy arrangement of Thom Yorke’s piano and vocalist driven “Daily Battles”, both versions serve as the film’s theme.