The subtitle for this compulsively watchable film is The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer. It’s a mouthful. But Norman, written and directed by American-born Israeli Joseph Cedar (Footnote) in his first English-language film, is a spellbinder that features Richard Gere in one of his best performances ever.
The American Gigolo star alters his movie-star looks to play Norman Oppenheimer, a schlubby loser who’s termed a “generous Jew” by the people he helps. Roaming the streets of New York in the same cap and ratty camel-coat (he doesn’t seem to live anywhere), Norman offers to connect people. He lives to do them favors – but what’s he after? Cedar forcefully rejects the grasping, anti-Semitic stereotypes represented by Shakespeare’s Shylock and Dickens’ Fagin. The character is a liar, a manipulator and often a pain in the ass. He’s described as “a drowning man trying to wave at an ocean liner.” But his desire to belong is as genuine as his loneliness.
Norman sees his way in when he befriends Israeli politician Micha Eshel (the outstanding Lior Ashkenazi) by buying him an expensive pair of shoes while the dignitary is visiting New York. Three years later, Eshel is elected Prime Minister; waiting in a receiving line, the makeshift macher waits for a few heart-poundingly suspenseful minutes to see if the great man remembers him. When he does, Norman suddenly earns his place at the table. A whole cast of characters – an ambitious nephew (Michael Sheen), a rabbi (Steve Buscemi), a tycoon (Harris Yulin), his assistant (Dan Stevens) and an embassy official (Charlotte Gainsbourg) – are suddenly interested in connecting with the mover and shaker. And just in case you think Gere’s hustling rung-climber is the only “Norman” in the world, Cedar introduces Hank Azaria as another street-level fixer on the streets.
Then the movie blows it, courtesy of a clumsy plot twist involving a political scandal and an act of desperation that has no place in a movie this savvy, this close to the bone. The spell is broken. Gere, however, never makes a false move. Cedar has said that he cast the star because he wanted “to see the character with fresh eyes,” and Gere responds with a revelatory portrayal of inner anguish and Chaplinesque poignance. For the actor, Norman is a personal triumph.