ed-norton

We’ve been waiting for what seems like forever for Ed Norton to firm up plans to direct and star in a film based on the Jonathan Lethem novel Motherless Brooklyn. But we haven’t been interested in the idea for as long as Norton has. He optioned the novel when it was first published, in 1999, and has been trying to get the film made ever since. File Motherless Brooklyn under “passion project,” then — fifteen years is more than enough time to qualify the active pursuit of material as such.

After all that time trying to launch the film, the money is now coming from RatPac Entertainment — that’s the company run by Brett Ratner and James Packer, which just had its name on The Lego Movie and is behind Cameron Crowe’s new film, too. 

Deadline reports that the film has a late 2014 start date in mind, and that Norton is starring in addition to directing. Furthermore, it clarifies that the film will change the story’s time period, setting Motherless Brooklyn in the New York of 1954.

The book is set in the present (or was, when it was written in the late ’90s) and follows Lionel Essrog, a young man who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome. Lionel and a few other guys work for a shady small-time neighborhood car service cum “detective agency” in Brooklyn, run by Frank, a guy who all but a minor local mobster. The crew is essentially a bunch of cast-off orphan weirdos, assembled from a boy’s home by Frank, and essentially fathered by him, too. When Frank turns up dead, Lionel is led down strange new paths. 

I love the novel, and I like the idea of Norton making the film, but there’s always that spectre of doom hanging over the passion project. Just as Winter’s Tale is limping through theaters — that film a long-time passion project for writer/director Akiva Goldsman — the team at HitFix put together a list of other passion projects that hit screens with significant problems. The failed passion project is a notorious concept in Hollywood. While there are certainly those that succeed, and are therefore never put in the same column as the failures, the list of failures is long.  

The difficulty with Motherless Brooklyn is apparent right from the start, as much of the book’s character and thematic development comes via Lionel’s first-person narration, which explains the mechanics and management of his Tourette’s, and allows us to see how his behavior and the structure of the story follow from Lionel’s lifelong battle with the domineering, free-associative spirals of the disorder. There’s also the fact that the Ed Norton of fifteen years ago is, on the surface, a better fit for the role as written in the novel.

How does one put that on screen in a way that is true to the character, and moves the story forward, and doesn’t feel like a bunch of cheap tricks? I don’t know, and I hope Norton has cracked it. I’d love this film to work, and we’ll eagerly watch to see how it turns out.

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