Subtle, unsettling, slyly amusing, “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” takes some getting used to because it’s the kind of film we’re not used to seeing.
Starring an unexpectedly persuasive Richard Gere and the first English-language film from top Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar, this delicate, novelistic character study is what more American independent films would be like if more were made by thoughtful grown-ups who gravitated toward nuance and complexity.
The gifted Cedar, a writer-director whose last two works, “Beaufort” and “Footnote,” were Oscar nominated, never makes the same film twice. Here he’s come up with an entirely involving drama about means and ends, illusion and delusion and the price having your dreams come true can extract, all of it centering on a man named Norman.
Norman’s last name, Oppenheimer, is Cedar’s acknowledged tribute to Joseph Suss Oppenheimer, an influential and ill-fated 18th century “court Jew” who was a banker and behind-the-scenes mover and shaker for a powerful German duke.
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Impeccably played by Gere, who has completely immersed himself in a very unlikely role, this Oppenheimer starts out without even a thimbleful of money or influence. A pusher, a hustler, an eternal searcher for the exploitable angle, Norman has nothing to go on but his drive.
In a wise but unorthodox move, Cedar doesn’t try to explain or psychoanalyze Norman, doesn’t provide his back story or reveal his secrets, doesn’t even tell us where Norman lives or whether his claims of family beyond his nephew Philip (the protean Michael Sheen) are true or not. It simply presents his actions in their confounding single-mindedness.
Always dressed in the same camel-hair topcoat and gray flat cap over a serviceable black suit, a bag slung across his body and phone earplugs at the ready, Norman is a one-man army.
Constantly walking and talking on the streets of Manhattan, unless he’s taking a herring-and-crackers break at a synagogue run by trusting Rabbi Blumenthal (an unexpected Steve Buscemi), Norman is fighting to promote himself at all costs. Told he’s like “a drowning man trying to wave at an ocean liner,” he insists “but I’m a good swimmer.”
When “Norman” opens, the details of the project he is seen promoting are not clear, but there’s never any doubt of the ferocity with which he’s pushing it.
Searching for a way to connect with powerful financier Arthur Taub (Josh Charles), Norman button-holes people wherever he finds them, exaggerating and insinuating, trafficking in half-truths, evasions, prevarications and even outright lies.
Absolutely impervious to rejection, unfazed by blows that would stun a bull elephant, Norman keeps going not only because that’s who he is but also because he truly believes his middle-man talents are providing a service by connecting those whom only he can help.
Norman’s search for potential Taub leverage leads him to the visiting Micha Eshel, Israel’s obscure but ambitious deputy minister of Industry, Trade and Labor beautifully played by Lior Ashkenazi (the younger Talmudic scholar in Cedar’s brilliant “Footnote.”)
Inveigling his way into conversation with Eshel in front of a high-end Manhattan shoe boutique run by the ethereal Jacques (a wonderful cameo by Isaach De Bankole), Norman ends up spending $1,192, tax included, buying the Israeli what he calls “the most expensive pair of shoes in New York.” It’s a purchase that will change his life.
For, three years and numerous favors later, a miracle happens. Obscure no more, Eshel becomes prime minister and anoints Norman his “unofficial ambassador to New York Jewry,” leading to some sublime scenes illustrating with cinematic elan what it feels like to have doors previously closed swinging open.
Those open doors, as it turns out, don’t only offer opportunity, they let in a host of problems Norman never had before, as people expect more from him and it becomes trickier than ever for him to deliver.
In addition to Gere and the other stars, Cedar has made excellent use of fine actors like Charlotte Gainsbourg, Dan Stevens, Hank Azaria and Harris Yulin in supporting roles and in general dazzles us with his great command of his complex story.
As “Norman” hurtles toward its daring and unexpected conclusion, one of the subversive things the film does is encourage us, against all expectation, to see things from the point of view of its often irritating protagonist.
Maybe, just maybe, Norman’s ability to create an intricate filigree of favors and obligation makes him not a man on the make but an unintentional saint, engaged in the sacred task of tikkun olam, the repair of a broken world. It’s something you’ll have to think about, and providing that kind of substance is what Joseph Cedar’s films are always about.