I caught Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer this past weekend at the AMC Grapevine Mills, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. This comic tragedy isn’t something that’ll blow you away, but I can’t stop admiring the neat turns that this thing takes.
Richard Gere plays the titular Norman Oppenheimer, a study in manic, unfocused ambition roaming the streets of Manhattan with his earbuds always in his ears, not because he’s listening to music but for the ring of his iPhone. A self-styled consultant, he’s made it his business to know all the wealthy and influential Jews in New York, whether they want to know him or not. He hopes to do small favors for them so he can broker business deals among them and take his cut. On one fateful day, he attends a conference of Israel lobbyists and makes the acquaintance of Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), a handsome, youngish deputy labor minister in the Israeli government whose political fortunes are at a low ebb. Sensing that the politician is feeling down, Norman buys him a pair of designer shoes that he’s been eyeballing, flinching momentarily when he receives the bill of $1,200. The pricey gift pays off when Eshel becomes Israel’s newest prime minister three years later, but as the movie’s subtitle implies, Eshel’s rise means he faces having to cut ties with Norman, who can’t stop running his mouth or presuming to do business on Israel’s behalf.
This is the first American film by Joseph Cedar, the Israeli writer-director whose 2012 academic dark comedy Footnote garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film. The same marvelous cleverness of that movie shines through here as we follow Norman’s dealings, which involves him calling Eshel’s people in Israel so often that he drives the prime minister’s assistant (Neta Riskin) up the walls. Occasionally the drama is here is too on the nose, as when the now-important Norman finds himself being hounded by a younger clone of himself (Hank Azaria), or when a rabbi (Steve Buscemi) pushes Norman into a trash heap after his promises of a donor to save the congregation’s temple turn out to be empty air.
Despite those few missteps, Cedar expertly manages this story with myriad moving parts, showing how Norman’s business dealings on the East Coast are imperiling Eshel’s wide-ranging Mideast peace plan 7,000 miles away. There’s a great set piece where Norman makes a frantic series of phone calls from a Staples store, and a seamless split-screen makes it look like he’s sharing space with the people he’s talking to, whether they’re in ritzy offices in midtown or a car in Tel Aviv. The way Norman finally neutralizes himself as a political threat is devilishly done, one I should have seen coming but somehow didn’t.
Even better is the desperate neediness pouring off Gere. A big part of the reason Norman makes other Jews uncomfortable is because he’s a living Jewish stereotype, a shifty fast-talker who puffs himself up and pledges things he can barely hope to deliver. Yet Gere makes him feel all too real, this man’s craving for the approval of the rich and powerful, his willingness to feed off their scraps, his pitiable lack of cool, his lonely quest for validation that drives him to make himself look more connected than he is. He is always hustling; we never see him at home. Indeed, an Israeli criminal investigator (Charlotte Gainsbourg) raises the question of whether he even has a home. The film would fall apart if Norman weren’t such a palpable presence, or if Eshel’s loyalty to him didn’t feel as palpable. That last part is down to Ashkenazi, the star of Cedar’s Footnote, who finds the soul of this pragmatist with a weakness for fine clothes and chocolates. While his whole staff urges him to cut Norman loose and save himself, Eshel clings to this man who cheered him up on a bad day, who is a human being at the end of things. Eshel’s last declaration is, “I love you, Norman,” and Ashkenazi makes it haunting. This movie loves him, too, as it takes in all his flaws.
Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer
Starring Richard Gere and Lior Ashkenazi. Written and directed by Joseph Cedar. Rated R.