I am pondering whether Edward Norton’s use of Tourette’s Syndrome for the personal trope of his shamus brings us to a deeper understanding of the forces of evil or the forces of good that are slowly uncovered in Norton’s own “Written for the Screen and Directed by Edward Norton” Motherless Brooklyn. Or is it just another helicopter beanie which allows its lead actor, writer and director to show off. (I'm not sure how many directors credit themselves in the manner of Richard Brooks but Norton has returned to that trope as well.)
Let me explain, long ago the science-fiction writer Ursula le Guin, in what was no doubt a party trick for conferences and conventions, appeared on stage wearing one of those beanies with a helicopter propeller on top. The propeller blew round if there was any wind or movement. Le Guin explained that for most detectives the trope invented by their author to set them apart from all the other gumshoes was usually about as meaningless as wearing a helicopter beanie.
It has to be said that Lionel Essrog’s (brilliantly played by Norton) Tourette’s Syndrome gets him into all sorts of trouble throughout the two and half hours of the movie. He touches people inappropriately, speaks when he shouldn’t, rubs bad guys up the wrong way and even rubs good guys up the wrong way. So, yes. I concede. Norton has immersed his character’s trope into what drives the narrative.
But what really drives the narrative, in one of the best examples of using detective and crime fiction to tell truths about society is the fact of the existence of Donald Trump. The spectre of Trump is all over this movie – the racism of big city developers, the lack of any interest in the lives of the poor, the right of the rich to crush dissent, the right of the powerful to ignore objection, the corruption of the foot soldiers who obey orders. In Alec Baldwin, and as everyone says you have to believe Baldwin was cast because of his association via Saturday Night Live with Trump’s pathetic stupidity and mediocrity, he has the perfect foil to play the bad man who believes he’s doing good.
A very fine movie even if Norton’s desire to show off his technical capability to play someone with Tourette’s does go on a bit….and you do have to wonder what happened to the fat detective who was part of the initial stakeout, appears back in the office and then disappears. You have to think he might be back in the three hour Director’s Cut.