“Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” depicts the desperate doings of a small-time social climber who, after years of fruitless scheming, strikes gold in the form of a close connection to a head of state. An entertaining lead performance engages us in the manic world of a protagonist who, in real life, we’d want to shoo away. But too much plot and not enough cohesiveness undermine the movie’s emotional impact and narrative clarity.
The film is the English-language debut of Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar, who made the Oscar-nominated “Beaufort” and “Footnote.” Here, he combines a thriller, a satire, a character study and a Jewish fable. He includes fine moments in all those arenas, but the different components don’t quite come together compellingly.
Richard Gere, in his latest adventurous outing, plays Norman Oppenheimer, an always-moving gray-haired fixer with a camel-hair coat, a black suit, a cap and a cellphone with earbuds. A shameless name-dropper who constantly needs to feel significant, Norman pulls strings, does favors and makes impossible promises in New York’s Jewish community. His nephew (Michael Sheen), who may be his only family and friend, likens him to a “drowning man trying to wave at an ocean liner.”
His fortune changes after he buys an expensive pair of shoes for Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), a semi-nobody who, three years later, becomes Israel’s prime minister. In a tense sequence, the prime minister reveals that he remembers Norman fondly. Norman joins his inner circle.
Norman, whom Cedar has described as a modern take on the “court Jew” in literature, cannot thrive in high-stakes, cutthroat big-time politics. He crosses the line between friendly favors and illegal corruption. His use of Eshel’s name to leverage quid pro quo deals results in scandal.
As Norman exaggerates, lies, crashes VIP receptions and otherwise machinates to stay afloat, Gere makes him a generally entertaining presence who, even when infuriating, possesses the charisma necessary to keep viewers aboard. Cedar’s portrayal of Norman as a well-meaning brand of pest, presented without sentimentality, proves refreshing.
But Cedar is too much like Norman here, in that he spins and juggles more story strands than he can handle. His storytelling can be fuzzy. Important emotional factors get buried in the messiness.
Neither Cedar nor Gere can make us feel Norman’s desperation or the meaningful bond Norman and Eshel purportedly share. We don’t sense the tragedy suggested by the title. Norman doesn’t affect us deeply.
The supporting cast contains impressive work from Steve Buscemi (more than fine as a rabbi), Charlotte Gainsbourg (as a government investigator), Josh Charles (as a tycoon), Dan Stevens (as a bigwig’s assistant) and Hank Azaria (as a Norman doppelganger, a scary thought).
REVIEW: Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer
Two and a half stars
Starring: Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Michael Sheen, Steve Buscemi, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Dan Stevens, Hank Azaria
Written and directed by: Joseph Cedar
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minute