FILM REVIEW – NORMAN: THE MODERATE RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF A NEW YORK FIXER. With Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Michael Sheen, Steve Buscemi. Written and directed by Joseph Cedar. Rated R for some language. 118 minutes.
It takes a lot less time than you’d probably expect to adjust to seeing Richard Gere playing a noodge. The suave, silver-maned matinee idol has been stretching his wings in offbeat projects as of late, whether as a homeless alcoholic in Oren Moverman’s excellent “Time Out of Mind” or here as the title motormouth in writer-director Joseph Cedar’s NORMAN: THE MODERATE RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF A NEW YORK FIXER. Rumor has it that Gere’s gone indie these days because his outspoken activism on behalf of Tibet has made him unemployable in a new Hollywood hungry for Chinese box office. Or it could be just because independent films are where all the good roles are for actors his age. Norman is a great one.
He paces the streets of New York City all day on his iPhone, babbling into earbuds while trying to make one convoluted deal after another, most which seem to involve introducing people to each other. The self-proclaimed CEO of Oppenheimer Industries, Norman doesn’t appear to have an office but he does have a lot of moxie. He natters, he cajoles and he eventually badgers his way into situations and invitations far above his station. Norman’s a small-timer with dreams of being a big deal. His only skill seems to be making people feel important, but in the rarefied world he orbits sometimes that can be enough.
It is in the case of Micha Eshel, an up-and-coming Israeli politician Norman barnacles onto in the opening scenes. Played by Lior Ashkenazi, he’s charmed by the old coot’s insistent chatter and lets his guard down long enough to accept a gift he really shouldn’t. Three years later Micha becomes Israel’s new Prime Minister and Norman finds himself finally allowed behind those metaphorical velvet ropes, free to jibber-jabber up and down the corridors of power. Of course, he blows it almost instantly by running that big mouth of his.
The second hour of “Norman” keeps the camera locked firmly on Gere as he sinks into a puddle of quicksand almost entirely of his own creation. There’s a plum supporting part for Charlotte Gainsbourg as a steely Israeli intelligence agent, and Michael Sheen is oddly convincing as Norman’s nebbishy nephew. By the time Steve Buscemi shows up as a disappointed rabbi you might be wondering if the almost all-Gentile cast in this extremely Jewish story is some kind of running joke, but the actors all pull it off so Mazel Tov, I guess.
“Norman” is mostly a one-man-show anyway, and we watch with morbid fascination as Gere talks up, down, around and in circles trying to stave off the inevitable. It’s a bravura turn, made even more impressive when realizing his Woody Allen mannerisms should by all rights seem silly coming from such a handsome goy. Gere––always a much better actor than he’s been given credit for––sells us on Norman’s desperation, on his aching need to be “somebody.”
Director Cedar pins him into tight close-ups that at times become visually monotonous, even when the performance dazzles. “Norman” flirts with redundancy as the title character circles the drain. (A few judicious trims to the third act would go a long way.) But when all is said and done––and believe me, an awful lot is said––the film remains a rare look inside a moneyed Manhattan subculture seldom seen at the movies. After meeting Norman Oppenheimer, you’re not likely to forget him anytime soon.•••
Over the past seventeen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.