If you were to ask me how Norman Oppenheimer, Richard Gere’s character in “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer,” makes money, I would admit to not having any sort of an idea. The movie is very focused on Norman making contacts, doing favors for others in order to have them owe him when the time comes, but how that translates into a paycheck is unclear. There is actually some implication that it may not, but that’s okay (not for him necessarily, but for us) and it’s okay because “Norman” is a smart, funny, clever movie with good performances and a unique point of view.
At the outset of the film we watch and listen as Norman explains a potential deal to his nephew, Philip (Michael Sheen). This idea in some manner necessitates Norman getting into contact with some big money people and to do that he attempts to use a mid-level Israeli diplomat, Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), and to make that happen he does a little stalking of Eshel and buys the guy a very expensive pair of shoes.
However, the point of “Norman” is not the exact method of Norman’s making contacts with people nor who owes him favors nor whom he owes favors, rather it’s the fact that all of this is taking place and Norman is wheeling and dealing. We watch as he at turns gets booted out of the house of finance guy Arthur Taub (Josh Charles), when things aren’t going well, only to have Taub and everyone else truly impressed by him a few years later when Eshel becomes Prime Minister of Israel and declares that Norman is a good personal friend. It is all rather dizzying, and not just for Norman, but the audience as well.
“Norman” is written and directed by Joseph Cedar, who, along with his director of photography, Yaron Scharf, utilizes a series of impressive split screens during the movie as Norman works his telephone (sometimes to good effect, sometimes ill). Rather than offering a clear divide on screen during the call, Cedar beautifully blends the two distinct locations so that while each group of characters is clearly in their own space, but where the two spaces meet, they blend together so as to appear as one.
This is wonderful not only in terms of its actual look, but in that it further adds to the dizzying sense one has watching the movie and of Norman’s whole operation. It is style that adds substance.
Although it is fascinating all around, in one of the most interesting moments, Norman comes across Srul Katz (Hank Azaria). Or, rather, Katz employs the exact same sort of stalking techniques on Norman that we have seen Norman use on Eshel. If Norman is an average sort of a fixer, Katz is a low rent one. Watching to see if Norman recognizes the mirror being held up to his face is an utter joy.
Much of the movie, and Norman’s machinations, in fact are an utter joy. So many people are so regularly so close to calling Norman on his smoke and mirrors tricks, including his rabbi (Steve Buscemi), but don’t because Norman’s promises are terribly enticing. Can he get Eshel’s son into Harvard? Can he save the temple? Can he get money man Jo Wilf (Harris Yulin), and his assistant, Bill Kavish (Dan Stevens), a great business opportunity? Can he make sure that Philip is married by the rabbi?
Somehow Norman and “Norman” ties all these things, and more, together. It’s beautiful to watch and Gere’s performance is touching. He sinks himself into the role and portrays Norman in both moments of success and failure in endearing fashion. Also wonderful is Ashkenazi’s Eshel, who has a politician’s ability to do the wrong thing but be able to convince everyone around him, himself included, that it’s for the right reason. From first to last, it is an intriguing, enjoyable, movie.
photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics