Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Edward Norton on ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ and the complicated legacy of Robert Moses

In the film, activist Gabby Horowitz (Cherry Jones) rallies protesters in front of a triumphal arch—an echo of famous photos of Jane Jacobs at Washington Square. Photo by Glen Wilson.

Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel, Motherless Brooklyn, follows the gumshoe Lionel Essrog as he attempts to find the murderers of his boss and mentor, Frank Minna. In his quest, he is both helped and hindered by his Tourette’s syndrome. The reader is taken on a ride through his “ticcing” brain as well as the dark contemporary city, centered in Brooklyn, where the orphaned Lionel grew up in a Catholic boys’ home and Minna ran his small-time detective agency.

In Edward Norton’s long-gestating film version, released earlier this month, the calendar has flipped from the 1990s back to the 1950s. The movie’s heavy is a version of a figure who should be very familiar to Curbed readers: Robert Moses, standing astride the city and destroying brownstone neighborhoods in the name of progress. Norton’s character, however, is not a Robert Moses facsimile, but a man named Moses Randolph (played by Alec Baldwin). But for the close watcher, Randolph’s office in the shadow of the Triborough Bridge, his love of swimming, and his fistful of mayoral appointments all hew close to the real Moses’s biography.

If Curbed could start its own Pop-Up Video series, this film would make a terrific first episode.

Critic Alexandra Lange talked to Edward Norton—who wrote, directed, produced, and stars in the film as Essrog—about film noir, fictional villains, and planning for the people. Spoilers ahead.

Continues: Curbed