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Norman Oppenheimer, the title character in Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar’s compellingly unsettling first American feature, Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, is a highly unusual figure around which to construct a would-be commercial drama. A so-called “fixer,” a presumably well-connected operator who uses special relationships and behind-the-scenes skills to pull off financial schemes and political deals, Norman is also a pathetic moocher, interloper and fraud, trading in personal relationships that don’t exist. Made with skill, style and an insider’s knowledge of the intersecting worlds of New York and Israeli power politics that resembles the examination of the tensions within religious factions in Cedar’s excellent last film, Footnote, this Sony Classics release represents a formidable but worthy commercial challenge.
Cedar, who was born and spent his early boyhood in New York City, introduces Norman (a bespectacled, somewhat physically diminished-looking Richard Gere, with a mop of gray hair) as the kind of guy you’d go out of your way to avoid. Seemingly living on the streets but reasonably well accoutered in a suit and camel-hair overcoat, he can only be described by a word that is generally considered an offensive cliché — Norman is pushy, really really pushy, which is why others steer clear of him. He’s always traipsing down the streets, worming his way into prestigious addresses, on his cellphone hustling something or someone and producing whenever possible his business card, which simply reads “Oppenheimer Strategies.” He’s an embarrassment, above of all to himself.
And yet, sometimes the cards fall his way. Chatting up a young, good-looking Israeli politician, Deputy Minister of Trade Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi, from Footnote), Norman boasts of friendships he doesn’t have and gets himself invited to an exclusive dinner party on false pretenses but, in the end, charms the ambitious fellow and seals the deal by buying him some very expensive shoes. At this relatively fallow period in Micha’s career, Norman makes an impression.
Three years later, Micha has become Prime Minister of Israel. Worming his way into a reception line at a big event, Norman finds himself warmly embraced in front of everyone by the new world leader, who gushes over the generous nature of this so-called great old friend, who deviously manages to obtain Micha’s private cellphone number.
To New York Jewish leaders, who have previously shunned or ignored Norman, the man now looks like the ultimate insider. “For once I bet on the right horse,” exclaims Norman, who is now taken seriously as someone with access to the highest places politically and financially. Among his promises is a huge donation to a synagogue that desperately needs millions to keep its real estate.
Cedar bores mercilessly into this charade, as Norman makes promises to everyone, gets sent to Washington on trade business, whispers about anonymous donors to whom only he has access and speaks grandly about how “I need the satisfaction of knowing that I’m doing good in the world.”
A particularly mesmerizing interlude involves a relationship he strikes up with Alex (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a sharp woman with a U.S.-based legal arm of the Israeli Justice System. Initially inclined to ignore the annoying chatterbox during an Amtrak trip, Alex becomes intrigued by the many uncensored boasts Norman makes about his business and political maneuverings. Much embarrassment and difficulty ensues for Micha, to the point where Micha’s position is in severe jeopardy and the second part of the film’s subtitle comes to dramatic fruition.
Cedar impressively creates a complex and intricately detailed portrait of the web of political, financial, social and religious affiliations that has everything to do with how the world works. Entirely true or not, the film imparts what feels like an insider’s view, albeit with an outsider wannabe at the center of things, about whom precious little is revealed. At times Norman refers to a daughter and a late wife, but these could be inventions. One wonders if he even has a home, as it’s never seen; the man always seems to be moving through the streets, on the phone, imposing himself where he’s not needed or wanted (until his would-be political connections are perceived), hustling, making promises and injecting himself into the center of things with nothing tangible to offer.
Gere presides over it all with an impressively self-effacing portrait of a man who, while you wouldn’t want to experience him in real life, remains fascinating onscreen from beginning to end. Of the countless hustler characters who have driven dramatic films over the decades, Gere makes this one distinctive and different, even if there’s no revelation of the entire man.
The energetic Ashkenazi makes for a convincing prime minister, while the sizeable supporting cast is decked out by an exemplary lineup of character actors. Some clever scene juxtapositions and transitions make connections and move things along in novel ways, and Jun Miyake’s distinctive score also is a plus.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Production: Blackbird, Cold Iron Pictures, Movie Plus
Cast: Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Hank Azaria, Steve Buscemi, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Michael Sheen, Dan Stevens, Yehuda Almagor, Isaach de Bankole, Josh Charles, Dov Glickman, Neta Riskin, Tali Sharon, Scott Shepherd, Harris Yulin, Ari Schwartz, Miranda Bailey
Director-screenwriter: Joseph Cedar
Producers: Oren Moverman, Gideon Tadmor, Eyal Rimmon, David Mandil, Miranda Bailey, Lawrence Inglee
Executive producers: Jim Kaufman, Amanda Marshall, Caroline Kaplan, Michael Graidi
Director of photography: Yaron Scharf
Production designer: Kalina Ivanov, Arad Sawet
Costume designer: Michelle Matland
Editor: Brian A. Kates
Music: Jun Miyake
Not rated, 118 minutes
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