Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer
Richard Gere commits to character in influence-peddling drama
Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (2017)
Directed by Joseph Cedar
Cast: Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Michael Sheen, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Dan Stevens, Steve Buscemi
Richard Gere has aged very well. In some instances, too well. He’s one of those actors who’s a little too good looking, a bit too confident, a tad too magnetic for his own good. There’s never any doubt that a guy like Richard Gere would end up as anything other than a movie star. Consequently, its hard for superstar actors like Gere to really melt away into a role. Even in his best work, you’re never unaware that you’re watching Richard Gere. It works for some roles, but not others. His turn as oily, charismatic, self-serving shyster Billy Flynn in Rob Marshall’s Chicago, for example, is a masterstroke of self-aware casting.
In Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, however, Gere is called upon to play the titular Norman Oppenheimer, a tenacious schlub (to use the cliché) of an operator trying to convert the currency of friendships and favors into quantifiable paychecks. Norman isn’t so much a con man, really, as a smalltime Jewish hustler. A businessman with no real business, he spends his days and nights in New York City shaking hands, passing out business cards by the bushel and offering to introduce people he doesn’t really know to people he’s never actually met. His sincere hope is that one good connection will allow him to wet his beak in somebody’s business. So far, though, his decades of glad-handing have given him little in the way of either money or influence. In a way it’s a tough role for Gere. His charisma precedes him, and its difficult to imagine this particular guy being unsuccessful in a career that involves making friends and influencing people. But kudos to Gere for embracing his age, searching for challenging roles and not going the tough-guy senior citizen route of Liam Neeson and so many other Hollywood comeback kings.
Gere commits himself fully here, embracing his flawed character’s doddering desperation. At one point he’s described as “a drowning man trying to wave at an ocean liner,” and it’s an apt description. From the unfashionable clothes to the bad haircut, you’d almost believe this guy is a Woody Allen-ish loser. No doubt about it: This is one of Gere’s best roles of recent years. Aiding Gere’s efforts is the smart dialogue and confident character-building of Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar—turning in his first English language film after foreign-language hits Beaufort and Footnote.
Norman has got more political and corporate intrigue crammed into its two-hour runtime than an entire season of “House of Cards” and three other basic cable dramas of your choosing. It’s also—at times—quite amusing, playfully cataloguing Norman’s countless failed attempts at legitimacy. Sophisticated, witty and unavoidably highbrow, Cedar’s film often comes across as quite talky—not a huge surprise given that its main character spends nearly the entire film spouting ingratiating dialogue. After all, it’s the one tool he’s got in his toolbox. It pays off one night, however, when Norman crosses paths with a young Israeli politician (Lior Ashkenazi) with whom he forms a quick bond. Years later the third-tier politician finds himself improbably elevated to the position of prime minister of Israel. A fortuitous reunion with his one-time pal Norman puts our titular hustler in the enviable position he’s always dreamed of. One night on a train, however, he meets a woman from the Israeli Ministry of Justice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and—in a fit of boredom or hubris or misplaced elation—spills the beans on his many semi-nefarious business connections. Adding to the inevitable tragic fall spelled out in the film’s subtitle is the fact that the suddenly famous Norman, good pal to the new prime minister of Israel, is being awfully fast and loose with his promises now that he’s finally “bet on the right horse” as he puts it. Don’t let your mouth write a check that your ass can’t cash, as they say.
Unfortunately, just as we’re really getting into the groove of this Norman guy, forgetting the inherent suavity of the actor behind the lumpen character, Cedar starts to lose control of his clunky, overladen vehicle. As the plots continues to pile on, and the scene shifts from New York to Tel Aviv, Cedar morphs the film into more of a political thriller. Unless you’re extraordinarily well-versed in Israeli politics, these late developments are a bit difficult to keep pace with. There are a few stylistic choices that prove to be stumbling blocks as well—a post-party montage of talking heads, in particular, sticks out like a sore thumb.
If your attention span is sturdy enough and your interest in international business/Israeli politics strong enough to get you through the swamp of wordy details, Norman is worth catching for the committed character work of Richard Gere. Norman, for all his flaws, is a fascinating fellow. You wouldn’t want to go into business with him—but you could easily spend an entertaining evening watching him work the crowd at a high-class party he crashed.