Edward Norton’s sophomore directorial effort is a 1950s noir about corruption in the big city.
In this week’s Motherless Brooklyn, based on Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel, Norton plays Lionel Essrog, a man with Tourette syndrome who’s found his unique way of looking at and processing the world around him is an asset as an assistant to private investigator Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). When Minna is killed, Essrog sets out to solve his murder as a way to pay tribute to the man who helped him out.
Doing so puts Essrog on a collision course with the powerful men who run New York City, including Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin). That doesn’t stop him, though, as he continues to chase down clues until he finds what he’s looking for.
Norton, who also wrote the screenplay, changed the setting of Lethem’s book from modern times to the 1950s, and Warner Bros.’ campaign has taken advantage of that to sell the movie as a throwback to the days of procedural dramas.
Essrog walks alone across a New York City bridge on the poster (by marketing agency Works Adv) released just a month ago in mid-September. The entire image is shaded in a deep blue to set a somber and cool tone to the film. There’s no copy or other text to explain the story here, but the floating heads of the rest of the cast appear at the top to show the solid lineup of talent on display.
Essrog introduces himself as the trailer (6.6 million views on YouTube), released in August, begins as someone with something wrong. He has Tourette’s Syndrome and will scream things at odd moments, creating problems with those around him. Working for Minna has helped him keep his head straight, so when Minna is shot Essrog is determined to find out who’s responsible. His investigation leads him to meet Rose, who shows him a world he’s unfamiliar with. It also brings him into conflict with Randolph, who will stop at nothing to protect his reputation as an angel in the city, not a devil.
Online and Social
There’s some good stuff on the movie’s official website, but none of it rises above the usual material found on other sites.
Advertising and Publicity
Footage from the film was shown to exhibitors attending CineEurope in June 2019, amounting to the first major publicity beat for the film. In August the movie was named the closing night feature at the New York Film Festival. It was also added to the schedule of the Toronto Film Festival in August and then the Rome Film Festival in October as well as the Camerimage International Festival in November, where Norton was slated to receive the Krzysztof Kieślowski Award.
Regal Cinemas shared an exclusive interview with the cast.
Media and Press
An interview with Norton from August, just before the trailer came out, had him talking about the timeliness of the story and the themes that he wanted to communicate. Many of the pieces and features about the movie focused on how this was only Norton’s second directorial effort, one that’s taken the better part of 20 years to get made after he first became interested in it.
Norton spoke about how Thom Yorke, lead singer of Radiohead, inspired the movie and how he got Yorke to create not one but two songs for the film’s soundtrack.
While in Toronto, Dafoe shared how Norton reacted to the beard he’d grown for The Lighthouse.
Norton appeared on “The Tonight Show” to talk about directing the film and working with the other actors. He and Baldwin in particular made a number of other talk show appearances to promote the film and raise audience awareness. Costar Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays a women Essrog befriends during his investigation, was part of some of these appearances along with a few profiles on her own.
Notably, Norton took time to praise the work of the behind the scenes crew that helped bring the film to life, something not many filmmakers take time to do. He also made sure to discuss the care he took in playing someone with Tourette’s, wanting to be true to the condition while not overdoing it and falling into parody, even unintentionally.
Tracking estimates have the movie opening around $3 million this weekend, maybe a little higher if the wind breaks at the right time. It’s hoping to be a serious dramatic alternative to the special effects-driven entries already in theaters or opening alongside it, but despite the totally decent campaign from WB and the enthusiasm of Norton and others, it’s hard to see it going much higher.
At various points in the publicity push, Norton has called this “a love letter to New York City,” something that’s been used to describe many films over the years, but that’s the least interesting aspect of what’s on display. Instead the most compelling message is that it shows someone with a condition not often seen portrayed in a serious way leading a productive and normal life, with goals and feelings that extend beyond that condition. While there’s nothing wrong with the campaign as it is, emphasizing that would have been something unique.