You don’t have to like Norman Oppenheimer, the fast-talking character played by Richard Gere in “Norman,” to appreciate his energy and drive.
Norman is a hustler and a schmoozer, an arm twister and a facile liar. When necessary, he can be a party crasher and a stalker.
He appears to be a businessman (his card vaguely reads “Oppenheimer Strategies”) who specializes in putting together deals. More accurately, he puts together people far more capable than himself who can put together deals. With luck, Norman gets a cut of the action.
One of the wonders of Gere’s performance (just when did he become such a terrific actor?) is that even while Norman remains a mystery, a cypher, he’s strangely compelling.
(The movie has a secondary title: “The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.” That right there tells you what we can look forward to.)
In the early scenes, we see Norman pestering casual acquaintances and heavy hitters on the New York financial scene (among the players are Michael Sheen, Dan Stevens, Josh Charles and Harris Yulin). Outwardly, Norman oozes confidence and professionalism. He’s impeccably dressed and groomed.
But beneath that show of casual affluence, you get a whiff of angst from a minor player desperate to be part of the big game. Norman is usually broke; he pops Tic Tacs in lieu of meals. He can’t afford an office, conducting all his business over his cell phone.
Writer/director Joseph Cedar’s film turns on Norman’s courting of an Israeli deputy minister visiting the Big Apple for a conference. Eshel (an excellent Lior Ashkenazi) is a bureaucratic nobody grateful that this apparent go-getter of an American wants to befriend him. Norman even treats him to the city’s most expensive pair of men’s shoes.
That’s an investment that seems to pay off big time when, three years later, Eshel is elected prime minister of Israel.
Suddenly the bottom-feeding Norman has access to the corridors of power, and all the Wall Street types who formerly gave him the cold shoulder now want to exploit his contacts.
At the same time, Norman is recruited by his rabbi (Steve Buscemi) to head a fund-raising effort to save their synagogue, which sits on a prime slice of Manhattan real estate.
And then there’s the lady from the Israeli Justice Department (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who is sniffing out corruption in Eshel’s administration and smells Norman’s semi-crooked b.s. a block away.
It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that all of Norman’s efforts will unravel disastrously.
But in getting there, Gere and Cedar give us a fascinating character study that actually qualifies as tragic. It says something that despite his faults, we find ourselves rooting for Norman to pull off his questionable enterprises.
The film is technically solid, with Cedar offering astonishingly effective use of split-screen storytelling.
But ultimately, the film belongs to Gere. This may be his best ever performance.