NORMAN

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Joseph Cedar

Stars: Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenzai, Steve Buscemi, Charlotte Gainsbourgh, Michael Sheen, Dan Stevens, Harris Yulin, Hanz Azaria, Josh Charles, Isaach de Bankole, Ann Dowd.

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Richard Gere finds one of his best roles in quite some time in this quirky Jewish comedy from filmmaker Joseph Cedar. Norman is the English language feature debut for Cedar, who gave us 2011’s Footnote, which explored the complicated relationship between a father and son team of Talmudic scholars. Cedar’s films are quintessentially Jewish in nature and the humour is often quite specific. Cedar’s newest film is a beguiling character study of a flawed character.

Cast against type and shorn of that usual suave and sexy, sophisticated and confident persona that he has projected in films like An Officer And A Gentleman and Pretty Woman, etc, Gere plays the eponymous Norman Oppenheimer, the president of the New York based Oppenheimer Strategies, a word-of-mouth consulting business. Norman works mostly with American-Israeli businesses. But his office consists of his cell phone, his rather battered satchel that he carries around with him, and the city streets. He is a self-styled fixer who makes deals and does the kind of work that no-one else wants to do. He is basically a shyster, who promises to make deals and bring people together for business purposes. He drops names, usually of people he doesn’t know or has any connection with. But he is also something of a lonely character, a flawed character. He is well-meaning but also annoying, and possibly a delusional dreamer. He is constantly networking, making connections, but in reality he has very little to offer.

Norman meets Micha Eshel (Israeli actor Lior Askenzai, from Cedar’s Footnote, etc), a charismatic Israeli politician who attending a conference in New York. Eshel is at a low point in his life, and on a whim Norman buys him an expensive pair of shoes, a gift that deeply touches the politician. Three years later, Eshel is the Prime Minister of Israel, and that gift comes back to embroil the pair in a political scandal that threatens to destroy Eshel’s career.

Norman continues to trade on his connection to the Prime Minister to continue making deals, and soon everybody seeks his help. Eshel wants to get his oldest son into Harvard; the local rabbi (Steve Buscemi) wants help in raising funds to save his synagogue. But Norman is also oblivious to the troubles he has caused.

The rather lengthy subtitle The Moderate Rise And Tragic Fall Of A New York Fixer tells us more about what the film is about and hints at Norman’s fate. Norman is inherently Jewish with its quirky sense of humour. Cedar moves the story along at a brisk pace, although there are a few scenes where the pace slows and they don’t work quite as effectively. The film is broken up into four distinct acts, and it takes a few unexpected turns along the way, and we are never quite sure where Norman’s journey will end.

The audience develops a reluctant sense of sympathy for Norman, even though he is not the most likeable of people. Gere captures his sense of desperation, as he tries to keep his head above water while making one deal after another. He delivers one of his best performances of his almost five decades long career. He finds subtle nuances that enrich the enigmatic character. However, some of his natural on-screen charm and charisma emerges. Gere’s simple, basic wardrobe is also an essential part of the character and it remains the same throughout the film.

Cedar and his regular cinematographer Yaron Scharf make great use of the snow-covered New York locations to give the film a sense of authenticity. The pair also cleverly use a split screen effect during Norman’s many telephone calls to effectively convey a sense of immediacy.

While this is Gere’s film, Cedar has surrounded the veteran actor with a strong ensemble supporting cast. Harris Yulin plays Jo Wilf, a ruthless businessman, while Dan Stevens (from the recent live action remake of Beauty And The Beast) plays his nephew Bill Kavish; Charlotte Gainsbourgh plays Alex, a steely Israeli investigator who rebuffs Norman’s attempts at flattery; Hank Azaria plays Srul Katz, another street hustler, a character whose appearance serves up a sharp contrast to Norman; Michael Sheen is terrific as Phillip, Norman’s sharp but frustrated and overworked lawyer nephew. Ashkenzai brings dignity and a touch of ruthlessness to his performance as Eshel.

Norman is the comical and compassionate tale of a person who desperately needs to matter, but this quirky comedy will not have broad appeal.

★★☆

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