Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer
Directed by Joseph Cedar. Starring Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Hank Azaria, Steve Buscemi, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Michael Sheen, Dan Stevens, Yehuda Almagor, Isaach de Bankolé, Josh Charles, Harris Yulin. (2017, R, 118 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 12, 2017
All vestiges of the pretty-boy veneer that have often overshadowed the fine performances that Richard Gere has consistently delivered throughout his long career are finally shattered with his work in this finely honed character study, Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer. The familiarity of the popular actor is subsumed in this role as a New York Jew who wants nothing more than to be connected to the movers and shakers of the world, to walk beside them as a valued player and associate, but not as a leader himself. Norman Oppenheimer wants to be the glue that connects important people, a macher to use the Yiddish term for which there is no single English equivalent. The film’s all-telling title uses the word “fixer,” although that doesn’t fully encapsulate the sense of Norman wanting to be a big shot who can make things happen, but from behind the scenes instead of in the spotlight. Reflected glory is good enough for Norman.
Norman is a man of the streets; in fact, we never see the inside of the character’s home. Instead, we see Norman constantly outside, on the move in Manhattan, covered in a camel hair coat and natty cap, with a telephone cord constantly dangling between his ear and coat pocket. Always at the ready is his ambiguous business card that simply reads, “Oppenheimer Strategies.” In many ways, he is a stereotype of a pushy Jew, using vague connections to get his foot in the door, relying on bluffs and wiles to worm access to those who would rather avoid his tacky ways and undissuaded bluster. Just when we’re about to give up on Norman as merely a legend in his own eyes, we witness a big payoff on one of his gambles. Having foisted himself upon a minor Israeli dignitary, Micha Eshel (Ashkenazi), whom he notices admiring a pair of shoes in a Fifth Avenue store window, Norman buys the ridiculously expensive footwear for the politician. Norman’s bank account-breaking bet pays off three years later when Eshel becomes prime minister and remembers his old benefactor, a connection that Norman attempts to parlay into other deals. Yet the deals are not about attaining riches so much as consolidating Norman’s influence among financial players, family, and even his synagogue (where Steve Buscemi plays the rabbi).
Writer/director Joseph Cedar, a New York-born Israeli, builds on the knowing insights evident in his previous film Footnote, which also co-starred Ashkenazi as one-half of a pair of rivalrous Talmudic scholars, who are also father and son. Cedar has an acute understanding of the conflicting intersections of religion, family, personality, and politics. These elements tangle into a beautiful knot in Norman, which, despite a climax and denouement that are conveniently scripted to favor classic tragedy over believability, the film is a sharp and keenly etched study of a man who would be the sidekick to kings.