Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Joseph Cedar.
Written by: Joseph Cedar.
Starring: Richard Gere (Norman Oppenheimer), Lior Ashkenazi (Micha Eshel), Michael Sheen (Philip Cohen), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Alex Green), Dan Stevens (Bill Kavish), Steve Buscemi (Rabbi Blumenthal), Jonathan Avigdori (Lior Keshet), Yehuda Almagor (Duby), Caitlin O'Connell (Sister Agnes), Hank Azaria (Srul Katz), Harris Yulin (Jo Wilf).
If they’re smart and talented, movie stars often age into fine character actors when they get to a point when they are no longer headlining big Hollywood movies. During the 1980s and 1990s, that was Richard Gere – and while he had some interesting earlier roles (Malick’s Days of Heaven, Schrader’s American Gigolo) there’s a lot in that period that is pretty generic, middle of the road studio fare – the type of mid-level film Hollywood doesn’t make anymore. Yet, as he’s aged, Gere has done well for himself in taking on roles in smaller, indie movies – and has delivered some of his best performances – as the homeless man with mental issues in Time Out of Mind (2014) or as the Wall Street millionaire under pressure in Arbitrage (2012). To that list, you can add Joseph Cedar’s Norman – a film that is perhaps too complicated for its own good, and does feel rather anticlimactic in the end – but in which Gere – who initially feels all wrong for the role, ends up delivering another fine performance.
In the film, Gere plays Norman Oppenheimer, a Jewish guy in New York who runs a “consulting firm” – which is really just him and his iPhone, putting together “deals”. It’s never really clear what exactly he does, how exactly he makes money (he doesn’t seem to make much) – and yet somehow, he finds himself knowing and meeting everyone. One of the people he meets is Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi) – an Israeli politician, who is visiting New York at a difficult time in his political life. He befriends Norman over one long day – as Norman follows him into an expensive tailor shop, and the two talk in a way that feels like it could go South at any minute, but somehow doesn’t. Three years later, Micha has risen in the ranks – he’s now the Prime Minister of Israel – but unlike what we expect, he has not forgotten his “good friend” Norman. His staff wants to put some distance between the two of them – but Micha himself likes Norman – and people know it. Norman uses this as his bargaining chip, as he tries to put together one large deal after another. Norman isn’t doing this for money per se – the deals, even if they were to work, wouldn’t be a windfall for him – but for the prestige of being the guy who can deliver. Norman has to tap-dance to keep all of his lies in the air, it’s never quite clear if he believes he can pull it all off, or if he just wants to be “that guy” for as long as he can.
The film was written and directed by Israeli director Joseph Cedar (who made the 2011 film Footnote, about father and son rival Talmudic scholars, which is way more entertaining than that sounds) – and he has a good sense of pacing, setting and tone. The film moves quickly through the various inner circles that Norman finds himself involved in – with the Israeli government, with high finance, with the synagogue board – led by Steve Buscemi – that Norman says he can help save. The tone of the film is strange – comic, tense, dramatic, and in some time, bordering on the surreal (especially when the magnificent Charlotte Gainsbourgh shows up for a few scenes as a government worker – the first time friendly, the second time, not so much). Through it all, the only consistent thing is Gere’s Norman, as he tries to keep everything going.
It’s an excellent performance by Gere, all the more so because I don’t think he, or the movie, ever really let us know what Norman is really thinking, or who he really is. By the end of the film, you still don’t really know if Norman is a selfish con artist, or just a guy who really is trying, but got in WAY over his head. The film itself isn’t as good as Gere – the politics of it all is too complicated, and not properly explained – the ending feels like a letdown – and yet Gere himself is never less than great – and makes the whole thing worthwhile.