Friday, May 19, 2017
You know Norman Oppenheimer.
He’s the guy on the margins, the one who claims to have a little more inside information than you figure he can, someone who only wants a minute of your time to pitch you on a deal that could work out for everyone. He’s a name dropper who tends to exaggerate his importance. Maybe you’ve listened politely to Norman, maybe you’ve brushed him off. When his number comes up on your caller ID, maybe you die a little inside.
Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer
Cast: Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Michael Sheen, Steve Buscemi, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Dan Stevens, Hank Azaria, Harris Yulin, Josh Charles
Director: Joseph Cedar
Rating: R for rough language
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
He’s not a bad guy, not really. He is a well-intentioned man, just inept. He’s correctly sussed out that a large part of making it depends upon the making of connections and the leveraging of “friendships.” It’s just that he pushes a little too hard. He’s a little desperate. You know it. Worse than that, he knows it.
We meet Norman doing what he does — networking. Or trying to network. He tries to trade on the slightest connection, he asks members of his family to vouch for him, he ambushes captains of industry in the streets, in their private hours and he is, sometimes kindly but always firmly, rebuffed.
But then he catches low-level Israeli politician Micha Eshel — the deputy of a deputy minister — at a vulnerable time. They chat, and Norman makes a gesture that (given the modest circumstances he takes pains to conceal) is extraordinary. He buys the official a fine pair of shoes, which Eshel observes will probably outlast his political career.
And while this touches the politician, later he feels uneasy about it, and he stands Norman up. He doesn’t go to the dinner with the billionaire that Norman had arranged by insisting that the politician had a plan (which was really Norman’s plan) that could benefit them all. So Norman is remanded to the street.
Later that night, the politician calls Norman, apologetic. Norman tells him not to give it another thought — it was a good night. He was missed, but there will be other opportunities.
We fade to black and a title card informs us that it is three years “and many small favors” later. The shoes that Norman bought walk a few steps to a podium. The politician in them has just been elected prime minister of Israel. Norman is in the crowd, clapping and smiling beatifically.
It is not my job to sell Norman to those of you who are not interested in Israeli politics or the machinations of New York fixer types. So I’ll go ahead and tell you it’s the first true English-language film of writer-director Joseph Cedar, who made the mirthful academic comedy Footnote in 2011 and the grim, intelligent war movie Beaufort in 2007. (A lot of Beaufort’s dialogue was in English, though it was about an Israeli Defense Unit stationed on a mountaintop in South Lebanon.) Cedar was born in New York and moved with his family to Israel when he was 6 years old. He’s one of the best writers working in film today and whatever he does with actors produces consistently excellent performances.
Norman is remarkable for the gentle and precisely calibrated performances of Richard Gere, who plays (once again) against his dashing type as the deferential wouldbe deal maker, and Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi — one of the leads of Footnote — who as Eshel displays genuine affection and gratitude for Norman.
When he sweeps his onetime benefactor into his orbit, Norman quickly finds himself in over his head. But, as Norman says of himself, “he’s a good swimmer.”
Ah, but deep waters hold sharks, and Norman’s genuine delight in performing small favors looks a lot like quid pro quo when he starts invoking the name of his now-powerful friend in service of dubious investment schemes. Being at the right hand of the Israeli prime minister confers credibility on the nebbish. Soon Norman finds himself in an international scandal.
There’s a very clever idea at the heart of Cedar’s script. Norman is related to a lot of Jewish literary characters. Shakespeare’s Shylock and Dickens’ Fagin leap to mind. These characters are often adjudged anti-Semitic by modern standards, as stereotypes of avaricious Jews. Cedar denatures the ugliness by setting his story in the predominantly Jewish sphere of Israeli-American relations and by portraying his fixer as a gentle, befuddled man more motivated by the need to feel a part of the wider world than simple greed. Gere grants the character dignity, even as Norman realizes the heartbreaking folly of his aspirations.
There was a moment in Norman when I thought Steve Buscemi, who appears in a supporting role as Norman’s rabbi, might have made a better choice for the lead than Gere — who, let’s face it, can only be so de-glamorized — but I might be wrong about that. Gere’s Norman has a flicker of charisma, just enough to make us wonder about his past, how he was thwarted. His voice wheedles and insinuates, but it sounds most sincere when it’s engaged in flattery. Buscemi would have brought something interesting to the role, but there’s a sense of ruined charm to Gere’s Norman. He’s like Gatsby after the crash.
While the subtitle says it all — there’s no way Norman can actually get over in a ruthless world he only thinks he understands — Cedar has crafted a bright and modest movie about ordinary people running up against their limitations. That might sound like a weak response to the boom and thunder going on in the other auditorium but if you’re looking for something a little more grown up, a taste of something maybe a little less sweet, have I got a deal for you.
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