Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 crime novel is a juicy mystery set in Brooklyn’s mobbed-up ’80s and ’90s. Loaded with violently funny coming-of-age stories, the book should make for a stellar ‘Goodfellas’-like adaptation – and still might, since Edward Norton’s sincere but misguided adaptation, resituated in the 1950s, isn’t really the story that fans of the book fell in love with.
Serving as screenwriter, director and main character – Lionel, a detective with Tourette’s syndrome – Norton gives himself over to uncontrollable tics that work better on the page. He’s more successful at evincing the gentleness that Lionel sometimes encounters in turn, especially from boss Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), gunned down early on and the engine of the plot. Lionel is stuck in a mental loop of vengeance, but all those gleaming cars and shadowy fedoras get in the way of Lethem’s clean emotional burn.
Norton adds new elements to the book’s already broad canvas, including a Harlem turf war, a skittering jazz undercurrent (the music is by ‘Yesterday’ composer Daniel Pemberton) and a love interest in Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Alec Baldwin, playing a powerful urban planner, makes for a ferocious stand-in for real-life New York power broker Robert Moses. When a brassy Cherry Jones shows up as a surrogate for the journalist who courageously took him on, Jane Jacobs, you wish Norton would commit to this fiery dynamic. It’s the real-life showdown he’d clearly rather be depicting.