Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of A New York Fixer
Writer-director Joseph Cedar aims his newest film at the narrow region between grim nonsense and effectual political satire, and lands right on target.
"Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer" follows an aging professional deal-maker, Normal Oppenheimer (Richard Gere), as he buzzes around New York City, identifying potential clients and then cornering them with a combination of charm, blather, and barely-plausible schemes. One such wild fantasia involves the taxes of an entire nation -- Israel -- and as Norman frantically seeks to connect a visiting functionary of the Israeli government with an influential investor, he almost inadvertently manages a connection of a different sort: That mysterious spark that people call friendship.
It happens in Act One -- subtitled "A Foot in the Door" -- and, as is apt for the title, it happens over a pair of finely crafted shoes, which Norman presents as a gift to the Israeli official, Misha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi). Jump forward by a span of three years (and "a thousand small favors") and Eshel has, despite all odds, been elected as Prime Minister of Israel. His grand plan is to "say yes" to all sides in the Middle East's political disputes, until he manages a compromise that will please no one and yet allow everybody to move forward into a peaceful and prosperous future.
The only obstacle? It turns out to be Norman himself, who, in his mixture of genuine willingness to help Eshel and his pride at having "bet on the right horse," stumbles into a political scandal while he's attempting a fresh set of maneuvers to hook up disparate parties so that they can provide one another with the things they want: Guaranteed admission to Harvard for Eschel's son, a huge donation to save a local temple, and the services of that temple's rabbi (Steve Buscemi) at the wedding of Norman's own nephew (Michael Sheen).
A beautiful woman lurks at the edges of this mess in the making, of course. Her name is Alex (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and though Norman is counting on her to help him smooth over an increasing number of jagged edges, Alex has an agenda of her own to pursue that might not be much good for Norman, Eshel, or the prospects of peace.
As Norman, Gere manages a tricky feat. The actor blends bits and dollops from various other cinematic figures -- such as Gere's own homeless New Yorker, George, from 2014's "Time Out of Mind," and maybe a few shavings of Chance, the protagonist of "Being There" given movie immortality by the late, great Peter Sellars -- and comes up with a figure that's simultaneously visionary and deluded, insignificant and full of potential, venal and noble. The movie revolves around Norman with writhing, kaleidoscopic moods, its satirical bite often softened with melancholy but just as often made more piercing by raw pity. Norman is a zero, a nebbish, a cipher, the kind of fast-talking guy who uses a table at Starbuck's or the aisle of an office supplies sorry at his office -- and yet, he could turn out to have courage and substance if only he could gain some traction in a world that refuses to believe in him.