Three-time Oscar nominee Edward Norton does not think small. After years of uncredited rewriting (“The Incredible Hulk,” “Frida”) and editing room consulting (“American History X”), he directed “Keeping the Faith” in 2000. And over nine years of trying to make an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel “Motherless Brooklyn” (November 1, Warner Bros.), which he wrote and produced, he decided to direct himself in the ambitious drama, which launched in Telluride and Toronto to upbeat reviews and closes the New York Film Festival on Friday. Whatever happens to this movie, it’s Norton’s baby.
At age 50, Norton is always in demand as a canny character actor, but it took nine years to develop, finance and produce “Motherless Brooklyn,” because he wanted to take the helm of a smart, ambitious drama for adults that evokes 50s period film noir New York, complete with a dissonant jazz soundtrack. Whether smarthouse crowds are ready to go there with him remains to be seen. Norton can act — directing is a work in progress.
But what work: Born in Boston, Massachusetts and raised in Columbia, Maryland, Shakespeare maven Norton burst into acting right out of Yale, winning a Golden Globe for his first showy role in “Primal Fear” (1996), followed the same year by smaller parts in Woody Allen’s “Everyone Says I Love You” and Miloš Forman’s “The People vs. Larry Flynt” (1996). Always fearless, Norton took on edgy starring roles in two controversial movies, “American History X” (1998) and David Fincher’s “Fight Club” (1999), and played opposite Robert De Niro in Frank Oz thriller “The Score” (2001), Salma Hayek in Julie Taymor’s biopic “Frida” (2002), Philip Seymour Hoffman in Spike Lee’s New York drama “25th Hour” (2002), Mark Wahlberg in “The Italian Job” (2003) and Jessica Biel in turn-of-the-century Vienna magician mystery “The Illusionist” (2006).
When Norton tried to play the tentpole game, he chafed under directors he didn’t respect. He starred as a Marvel superhero in Louis Leterrier’s “The Incredible Hulk” (2008), as well as Brett Ratner’s “Red Dragon” (2012) and Tony Gilroy’s “The Bourne Legacy” (2012), which all grossed over $200 million worldwide. He joined the Wes Anderson ensemble in “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012), “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014), and animated “Isle of Dogs” (2018). Norton impishly made fun of himself, flirting with Emma Stone and wrestling in briefs, in A.G. Inarritu’s Oscar-winning “Birdman” (2014).
Norton is clever and never boring. He has an instinct for playing compelling characters that will grab audience attention, whether they are deranged and dangerous (the skinhead in “American History X”), narcissistic and charming (“Birdman”) or British and romantic (China drama “The Painted Veil”). Clearly, the political activist is hungry for movies crammed with ideas that will play for smart audiences. If Hollywood is making fewer of them, Norton will step up to the plate. It’s easy to see why he was attracted to Lethem’s brilliantly verbal “Motherless Brooklyn.”
Norton moved the setting from 90s New York to the 50s, and added a complex “Chinatown” subplot about city politics. Early on, studio executive Toby Emmerich backed the script, but literary adaptations weren’t his purview at New Line Cinema: when he became motion picture chairman of Warner Bros., he encouraged Norton to independently finance the movie and sell distribution rights to Warners.
In his second directing effort, Norton gives a wily lead performance as a clever private detective with inventive, scatty verbal tics from Tourette Syndrome, supported by a colorful cast including Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Willem Dafoe, Bruce Willis, Bobby Cannavale, and last but not least, Alec Baldwin as a racist and corrupt city powerbroker (inspired by Robert Moses) who believes that the ends justify the means.
At the heart of Norton’s movie is his delicate performance as Lionel Essrog, who is “the emotional hook of Jonathan’s book from page one,” Norton told me in Toronto. “The character is marvelously paradoxical: he’s afflicted but talented, funny but also lonely and poignant, he’s capable and brilliant, but his affliction creates difficulties for navigating the world. You know all of this because you are with him, inside his head and outside watching him. It creates empathy, which is the very best thing you can do with a protagonist: immediately you feel for him, you want him to succeed. Whatever the adventure is going to be, you want to be on his side.”
Norton compares his afflicted central character to such Oscar-winners as “Forrest Gump” and “A Beautiful Mind,” and admits to being inspired by actor-directors like Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood, and Robert Redford. His hero is Warren Beatty, who directed himself in “Reds” (1981), a three-hour-fifteen-minute epic about a socialist, against all odds. “He pressed ahead to make one of the great films of that period,” said Norton, “‘Damn the torpedoes,’ and did it!”
There are only so many Wes Anderson movies for Norton to star in; while he will have first crack at more juicy character roles, developing his own material is probably the right way to go, even if the stories he loves are more accessible to a narrow arthouse crowd. Lower budgets bring more creative freedom, which is what Norton embraces. Nominated for three Academy Awards — Best Supporting Actor for “Primal Fear” and “Birdman” and Best Actor for “American History X” — Norton is respected and overdue.
While the fall festivals are effective buzz-builders for awards season, the field is pretty crowded. If Warners can lure audiences to see this densely-plotted movie which Norton brought in for just $26 million, Academy members will also appreciate its production values, from top-notch period design to a sumptuous jazz score.