Norman Oppenheimer is a small time operator who befriends a young politician at a low point in his life. Three years later, when the politician becomes an influential world leader, Norman’s life dramatically changes for better and worse.
It’s safe to assume there is a powerful creative bond between filmmaker Oren Moverman and actor Richard Gere. Oren co-wrote Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There”, where Gere played (one of the versions of) Bob Dylan; he later directed him in the sublime study of homelessness, “Time Out of Mind” (read review here) and, more recently, in the social-satire-cum-drama “The Dinner” (read review here). Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar’s political drama “Norman” (shortened from “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer”) marks another collaboration between the two, this time Overman assuming a comfortable spot in the producing chair. His trademark visual flair, deft handling of characters, sociopolitical critique and unexpected, beautiful “left turns” are occasionally glimpsed, while Gere, yet again, displays major acting chops and Cedar deserves credit for keeping this at-times unwieldy story flow together as smoothly as it does.
Split into several acts, each one depicting a stage in the titular character’s existential trajectory, and steeped in Jewish culture – a running thread throughout his career – Cedar’s film is, like his previous efforts, both a love letter to his people and a condemnation of his country’s turbulent regime and its political leaders. “Norman” marks a fresh, somewhat lighter approach – just as cynical and scathing, perhaps, but more focused, examining the effect of prioritizing politics and the pursuit of “the greater good” over actual, you know, human beings. The writer/director’s at times overt preaching is now masked under an astute character study sheen, buoyed by its powerful lead performance.
Norman Oppenheimer (Gere), a self-proclaimed fixer, is perpetually making moves, lingering among the financial and political elite, building connections that go nowhere – until they do. His go-to “inside guys” like Philip (Michael Sheen) and Bill (Dan Stevens) try to avoid being associated with him, but he presses and presses, provoking pity/irritation, until they’re backed into a corner. He hunts them down while they’re jogging, “bumps” into them at parties, and, in the case of the Israeli Deputy Ministry of Trade and Labor, Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), goes so far as to follow them through the streets of New York. “You’re like a drowning man, trying to wave in an ocean liner,” Philip tells Norman. “But I’m a good swimmer,” Norman replies.
A gesture of either kindness or self-interest – or both; let’s call it “alleged goodwill” – leads to major political ramifications. Norman ends up befriending Eshel, though the basis for their brotherly love remains purposefully dubious throughout. “Three Years and Many Small Favors Later”, as the title card announces, Norman is hesitant to meet Eshel, now a political bigwig, at a convention. They reconnect – but then Norman’s synagogue falls under the threat of closure unless he raises millions of dollars. A montage both heartrending and hilarious displays the man desperately going through his network of dismissive bigwigs, including Eshel, trying to make sense of his life by achieving closure. Who is using whom? As Esher’s career takes a dive, crucial information is revealed about Norman’s background – and then their seemingly disparate storylines get intertwined in the most meticulous of ways. “History is full of anonymous heroes,” Eshel tells Norman over the phone towards the end. Perhaps, this gives Norman the closure he so desperately seeks.
Cedar showcases a deft handling of sequences. There is a formidable muted exchange between Norman and Eshel, seen through the inside of a store, their body language telling us everything we need to know about the dynamics of their interaction. Norman desperately shoving herring and crackers into his mouth is a sight to behold. The director isn’t afraid to spice up his narrative with surreal touches, mirroring his protagonist’s journey and the absurd nature of his country’s political regime: everyone freezes at a convention, segueing into a visual sequence of Norman going through each potentially-lucrative encounter he’d had in his head on a rainy ride home.
Richard Gere, after a slight stumble with “The Dinner,” where he played second fiddle to Steve Coogan’s maniacal central character, here gives another “can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him” performance. His Norman, always “very happy to introduce” you to someone, is constantly scheming in his beige overcoat, growing wearier and conflicted, his skin flaking from exhaustion. One wishes he shared more scenes with the charismatic Lior Ashkenazi, whose Eshel is self-pitying, “radiating optimism” but internally conflicted. “The shoes I buy today will last longer than the government they’re serving,” he proclaims dismissively. He wants to go down in history as the leader who ended the conflict – and worse comes to worst, God will be blamed.
As for the rest of the film’s impressive cast, Charlotte Gainsbourg stands out in a minor but key role. A scene where she calls Norman at a train station and observes his reaction as they converse, demonstrates what a powerful actress she is: her Alex sees through Norman, and that mixture of compassion, empathy and just a trace of pity is quite a feat to pull off in less than a 20-second shot. “I need the satisfaction of knowing I’m doing good in the world,” Alex proposes, the one thing Norman cannot provide.
Sheen, Stevens, Steve Buscemi as a Rabbi and Hank Azaria are unfortunately not given enough room to breathe, delegated to plot requirements. As good as they are, they each also serve a purpose, limited by the director’s vision. That same vision gets in the way of a fully-fleshed out story, which is so busy racing towards tying it all together, it meanders between its two leads, never truly gaining raw, jaw-dropping moments of power a film like this requires. It’s all entertaining and occasionally quite touching – but also rather inconsequential, the film disappearing from your mind as quickly as Norman’s business cards do from most folks’ coats. Were it not for the superb ending and its central performance, this would merely be another exercise of a director showing off considerable skills in an otherwise-flat affair (think “The King’s Speech”).
That said, Norman’s gradual and painfully funny climb to success is portrayed with brutal, and brutally hilarious accuracy. Taking cues from Overman’s surreal touches, Cedar’s intricately-structured, well-paced script covers hefty subjects like the meaning of friendship/loyalty and personal vs political priorities, clever in the way it’s both a character study, a sociopolitical critique of our increasingly disconnected culture and a somewhat suspenseful Man vs Goliath tale. Cedar continues his streak of explorations of the different facets of Jewish culture and politics through the prism of his (anti) heroes – incisive, sometimes absurd, cynical and unpredictable… sort of like life itself. While Norman’s life may resemble a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs, “Norman” is more of a pleasant stroll through New York streets, where a surprise just may lurk around the corner.
Opens in select theaters Friday, May 19th