‘Chinatown starring Rain Man” would be a fair description of Edward Norton’s new screen adaptation of Motherless Brooklyn, but what’s interesting about this so-so detective story is what’s going on in the background.
Norton has been trying to make this movie, from Jonathan Lethem’s brilliant novel of the same name, since before the book was even published, back in 1999. Norton is no longer a big movie star and no longer young, so why did the film finally get green-lit? I think the ascendance of Trump gave it new resonance. It is rolling out as the closing-night selection of the New York Film Festival ahead of a November 1 theatrical release.
Though the novel is a comic-surrealist romp, Norton’s dramatic adaptation — which he produced, wrote, and directed, and in which he stars — swerves off in a completely different direction inspired by the career of Robert Moses, the master builder who held many different job titles for decades across many mayoral administrations and is responsible for a large portion of New York City as we know it.
In mid-century New York, Norton plays Lionel, a detective with OCD, Tourette’s Syndrome, and intermittent neck spasms who is trying to solve the murder of his boss and friend (Bruce Willis) by shady characters with political connections. The mystery element of the film is tangled and not particularly compelling, and Norton’s chief purpose as a filmmaker seems to be to give himself a lot of attention as an actor. I wouldn’t say his performance is immediately annoying — it takes a good ten seconds before it becomes unbearable — but the constant barking and twitching does not work as well on screen as one would hope. What was hilarious and strange in the novel just looks like scenery-chewing in the movie.
Things get a lot more interesting when Baldwin shows up as “Moses Randolph,” the enduring puppetmaster behind City Hall, modeled after Robert Moses. Baldwin, who signed up for the role last February, makes Randolph a variant of Donald Trump that’s much more nuanced than you’d expect. He’s a smart, tough operator instead of a buffoon and even radiates a kind of sinister appeal. It’s a far more interesting take than Baldwin’s loud-but-limp SNL spoofs.
Like Trump, Randolph calls himself a get-things-done guy. Like Trump, he is called a racist, accused of sexual assault, and prone to breaking whatever rules he thinks stand in his way. Like Trump, he is a one-man wrecking crew who can command actual wrecking crews. He says his cause is “making America great.”
Though Baldwin’s Randolph is certainly the villain here, Norton makes a wise choice to give the character the breathing room to make the case for himself. He is a successor to John Huston’s character in Chinatown, who, being named Noah Cross, also echoed powerful paternalist forces dating back to the Bible. In a late monologue, Moses explains that there were only two crossings into the city before he effectively took it over, behind closed doors, through bland bureaucracies like the Board of Estimate. He built bridges, parks, and expressways. He put “palaces of culture where slums used to be,” which is a fair description of the site we today call Lincoln Center, the world’s leading arts and cultural complex — and also the place where this movie is making its New York premiere. He notes that today no one thanks, or even thinks of, Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of Central Park, which in the process of being built displaced a lot of farmers and shepherds who, naturally, fought every step of the way. He derides the people displaced by all this progress as “chipmunks” whose worries amount to moving their stores of nuts from one place to another. “Those who can build, do,” he says. “Those who can’t, criticize.”
In effect, Baldwin’s character makes the case for Trumpism better than Trump ever does: What do the rules matter as long as things get built? Randolph would gladly acknowledge that there are people more brilliant than he is, including his brother, a civil engineer played by Willem Dafoe who seeks to expose his devious methods. But brilliant people get lost in their ideals and disappear into the quicksands of bureaucracy. It takes a bulldozer of a personality to actually create great public works.
Baldwin is a first-rate actor and, given that he was once identified by the New York Post as “the bloviator,” a first-rate choice to play the loudest of all bloviators. In his movies, he rarely does things halfway, and he fills this role with smarts and testosterone. Just as his wickedly alert portrayal of the heartless Blake in Glengarry Glen Ross made the character an unexpected hero to hedge-fund types, he may find his Moses Randolph becoming a favorite of the MAGA men.