Noir and crime films always seem to have an underdog — the person who’s going against all odds to reveal corruption, bring down ruthless men, or solve the scandal of the century. In Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn, that man is Lionel Essrog, a private detective who has Tourette’s syndrome. Edward Norton’s 2019 reimagining of Motherless Brooklyn takes the setting of the story from the present day to the 1950s, but Lionel (Norton) remains the same, coming along for the ride to solve a murder. Motherless Brooklyn isn’t necessarily ripped-from-the-headlines stuff, but even though Lionel Essrog isn’t based on a specific person, the character was special enough to catch the eye of Norton.
Motherless Brooklyn tells the story of Lionel, whose mentor, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), is murdered in 1950s New York City. As viewers see in the Motherless Brooklyn trailer, Frank was Lionel’s only friend and the one who helped him become a private eye by working with his Tourette’s syndrome, so Lionel takes it upon himself to figure out what Frank knew and who would want him dead because of it. Signs point to Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), a local city land developer. The plot goes all the way to the top of the New York City power structure, and Lionel has to keep himself safe while avenging Frank’s death.
Lethem told The Guardian that he chose to give Lionel Tourette’s because he was fascinated by the disorder and also saw its potential for literary play. “I've always had an element of Joycean wordplay in my books, some characters who were in charge of the babbling or frothing at the mouth,” he said. “I began to wonder what I was getting at, and what I was avoiding by keeping that on such a tight rein. Tourette's gave me the opportunity to put the wordplay and the free association front and center."
Norton found inspiration in Lionel because he felt that there would be many who would discount him in his life and would overlook Lionel’s hidden strengths. “It’s one of my favorite types of characters in film: An underdog, a Forrest Gump, a Rain Man. The kind of character you root for because watching them navigate their unique condition, which gives them limitations but strengths also, it draws out of you empathy,” Norton told Smithsonian. “Even if we don’t have that condition, we understand that feeling of being misunderstood and underestimated.”
Norton told The Hollywood Reporter that he watched documentaries, read articles and books, and worked with people who actually had Tourette’s syndrome in order to research Lionel’s condition, and he clearly felt strongly about Lionel and his story. According to The Hollywood Reporter, it took two decades for Norton to get this movie made, all for a mere $26 million. That’s a pittance when one thinks of the hundreds of millions of dollars it takes to produce and release a Marvel superhero movie. Motherless Brooklyn’s main protagonist may not fit the traditional noir hero mold, but Lionel Essrog’s tenacity is what made him come alive on the page in the first place.