It is a little hard to avoid spoilers in a film with the title Norman: The Moderate Rise And Tragic Fall Of A New York Fixer. Luckily, writer/director Joseph Cedar (Footnote) has made Norman’s journey sufficiently interesting that you will not mind having a notion of its destination. Good acting, especially by Richard Gere in the title role, makes this a compelling character study.
Norman Oppenheimer roams the streets of New York, pitching get-rich-quick schemes to everyone he meets. His relentless networking alienates people, especially since he tends to embellish his ties to the rich and powerful.
One day, Norman meets Micha Eschel (Lior Ashkenazi), an Israeli politician visiting New York because his career has hit a rough patch. Norman seizes the opportunity to give Micha a pair of expensive shoes, which deeply touches the politician.
When Micha’s career undergoes a reversal of fortune, Norman finds his personal reputation rises as well. Ever the gambler, Norman decides it is time to embark on his biggest deal yet. His nephew Philip Cohen (Michael Sheen) denounces him as “a drowning man trying to wave at an ocean liner”. Norman retorts that he is a “strong swimmer”.
The character of Norman is Cedar’s attempt to update the old character of the Court Jew, who handled finances or lent money to European royalty in return for enhanced social status. Cedar also mentions the Shakespearean character Shylock as an influence.
Norman is your basic unreliable protagonist. He wears the same clothes throughout the film, and you never see him at home. Although he mentions departed family members, you keep wondering if they are inventions of convenience. Philip is the only relative who actually appears in the film. It is clear there is an affectionate bond between Philip and Norman, but equally clear that Philip distrusts him.
The film’s success is directly tied to the ability of Richard Gere to convince us that we should root for Norman, quirks and all. While Gere’s performance is stellar, he played a similar role in 2015’s Time Out Of Mind. George, his character in that film, was an unstable homeless man hoping to reconcile with his estranged daughter. George and Norman are kindred spirits, in that both struggle to remain relevant in a world that tends to overlook them. Filmgoers are lucky to have these two richly nuanced performances from Gere.
There are a number of wonderful small moments from Sheen, Steve Buscemi as Norman’s long-suffering rabbi, and Charlotte Gainsbourg as an embassy official whom Norman chats up on a train.
Cedar and his cinematographer, Yaron Scharf, do some nifty camerawork with split screens. The effect heightens our perception of Norman as someone with a dubious grip on reality. Jun Miyake’s scoring helps establish and maintain this mood.
My only quibble with the narrative is its predictability, lengthy subtitle notwithstanding. The story builds to a third-act reveal that most viewers will guess long in advance. On the other hand, Cedar and Gere get so much right that they still won me over.
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