At 50, Edward Norton (Birdman, Fight Club, The Incredible Hulk) just fulfilled his 20-year ambition to write and direct Motherless Brooklyn (from Jonathan Lethem's 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel).
For the difficult role of the hero, Lionel Essrog, a 1950s New York detective with Tourette's syndrome — which gives him tics and repetitive movements and makes him blurt rude things that others might think but not say — he cast himself. A sensible choice, since few actors have topped Norton's performance as a murder suspect with another speech affliction (stuttering) in Primal Fear, which made him an overnight star in 1996.
It also helps that he has a Yale education, a Golden Globe Award, three Oscar nominations, two Emmy nominations, two Film Independent Spirit Award nominations, as well as an AARP Movies for Grownups Award nomination.
To fill out his cast, Norton looked to some of the greatest grownup actors in the business. Bruce Willis, 64, plays Lionel's beloved detective boss, whose murder ignites the whodunit plot. “Bruce has such a fantastic crinkle in the eye, and even the smallest smile from Bruce, or the merest affectionate teasing, makes you understand that he loves Lionel, and why Lionel would feel so bonded with him,” Norton says.
Willis also has the capacity to convey the deepest imaginable sadness, crucial to the spirit of film noir. “Motherless Brooklyn is a tragic gumshoe story in the 1950s, but it's hard-edged, not a nostalgia piece,” Norton says. “People of a certain age remember the ‘50s — it wasn't all bobby socks and Buddy Holly. It's in the vein of L.A. Confidential or Chinatown, which didn't treat the period with sentiment."
Norton's villain, a suspect in the murder, is Moses Randolph, a character inspired by titanic developer Robert Moses, who built countless bridges, roads and parks in New York, and almost bulldozed Greenwich Village. The role was perfect for the gifts of Alec Baldwin, 61.
"Alec has an incredible combination of capacity to intimidate and capacity to charm. His Moses is very brilliant and very compelling and very persuasive, really. But then, down underneath, he's a terrible bully. Like Lee J. Cobb in On the Waterfront, Alec has that ability you can't fake — that big, powerful gravitas, like a great Shakespearean actor. He's got an incredible command of language that's absolutely beautiful."
Still more intriguing is Moses’ mysterious associate Paul, a character based on Norton's famous grandpa Jim Rouse, who worked with Eisenhower, Reagan and Bush, got the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton, championed free enterprise and philanthropy, popularized the American shopping mall, and personally founded Norton's hometown of Columbia, Maryland.
"My grandfather was a city planner and urban developer who was the antithesis of Robert Moses,” Norton says. “He was on the cover of Time magazine."
For this essential role, Norton cast Willem Dafoe, 64. “Willem's Paul is the heart of the movie, mysterious, kind of like Obi-Wan Kenobi,” Norton says. “Crazy and broken, but he also has this deep humanity, like in Willem's film about Van Gogh, At Eternity's Gate. I needed an actor who can at first seem unhinged and unreliable, but then is revealed to be a very moral person — and that's Willem."
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Norton made his whodunit — set in Harlem jazz clubs, tough alleys and the scary corridors of Gotham power brokers — for all ages, but he thinks grownups who remember the ‘50s will get it on a whole different level.
"AARP people who feel connected to that era have definitely been responding to the movie,” Norton says. “People like to revisit the authenticity of what that time felt like. It's not just the cars or the music, but what was going on in society.
"You see it, and your brain goes, ‘This all feels right. I feel like I've gone through a portal and I'm not looking at a facsimile of a time. I'm in it.’ “
AARP critic Tim Appelo was Amazon’s entertainment editor and a critic for The Nation, Hollywood Reporter, EW, People, MTV, LA Weekly, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times.