Norman (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

Norman seems at times to be a comedy, at other times a tragedy, and at yet other times a parable, but succeeds at none of them.

Sometimes movie titles tell you exactly what to expect. That’s the case with Joseph Cedar’s Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer: the central character, Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere), is a political hustler in the Big Apple, and his career arc is well described in the subtitle (although you may disagree with the adjectives). It’s a showcase for Gere’s talents, and his performance goes a long way toward making a flawed movie worth seeing.  

Norman calls himself a businessman, but his only business is making connections. He talks a great game and dresses well enough to pass muster in the upper-class Jewish circles where he plies his trade, but you can’t help but suspect that his cuffs are fraying and that the dark suit and tan overcoat he always wears are probably the only ones he owns. Norman fails at least as often as he succeeds, but he keeps at it (he tells one character “I’m a good swimmer” meaning that he knows how to keep his head above even rough waters), perhaps because if he stopped hustling he would simply cease to exist.

People like Norman are fact of life, and they know how to survive no matter who is in power or which way the political winds are blowing. That goes double in New York City, where a clever hustler can achieve the status of a folk hero, at least for the moment. I don’t want to invoke an unfortunate racial stereotype, but Norman is reminiscent of a certain small animal who enjoyed 15 minutes of fame on YouTube for dragging a slice of pizza much larger than himself down the subway steps: you may smile at his persistence when watching from afar, but you would be less than delighted should he turn up on your doorstep.

The screenplay of Norman may have been written to cash in on public interest regarding several several high-profile scandals involving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and this film will particularly appeal to people who have an interest in Israeli politics. The main story is set in motion when Norman courts and wins an Israeli politician named Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi, who even looks a bit like Netanyahu) by buying him a pair of very expensive dress shoes (the symbolic meaning of those shoes will be hammered relentlessly for the rest of the film). It’s a bit unbelievable (surely an Israeli politician would be suspicious of such an obvious attempt to buy his favor), as are several other key scenes in this film, the most egregious of which involves Norman being incredibly naïve in explaining his business to a total stranger. Anyway, the investment pays off a few years later, when Eshel become prime minister of Israel, and now Norman is finally playing with the big boys. The subtitle tells you how that works out, but the details of Norman’s schemes are far less important than is the character created by Gere.

Norman reminds me of several movies, including Gomorrah for the casual acceptance of corruption, and Night and the City (both the 1950 and 1992 versions) for focusing on a character who’s all about the hustle. It’s also reminiscent of many caper films, offering as it does a potted demonstration of how a fixer works. The problem is that political corruption is not inherently interesting, and while Gere’s performance is fine, he’s dealing with a role that gives us no reason to care about him, with the result that we also don’t care much about his triumphs and his failures. In fact, Norman is such a Luftmensch that I’m not entirely sure if he’s really meant to be a character at all, or if he’s simply a metaphor for something. The latter possibility is lampshaded at one point, and the inclusion of a patently obvious shadow character (who also may or may not exist) lends support to this interpretation also.

Norman includes some odd flourishes that sit poorly with the rest of the film, including a montage of talking heads and many scenes in which people obviously in different locations are shown as if they were in the same room. Most of the exterior shots use extremely narrow depth of field, an approach that is more effective when not used relentlessly. The soundtrack by Jun Miyake sometimes works at cross-purposes with the story being shown—in fact, it’s one of the reasons that it’s not entirely clear if Norman is intended to be a comedy, a tragedy, or something else entirely.

For all the faults of Norman, it also has some good points. The acting is strong all around, not only from Gere and Ashkenazi, but also from Michael Sheen as Norman’s nephew, Charlotte Gainsbourg as an Israeli official, Steve Buscemi as Norman’s rabbi, and Josh Charles as a financier. There are many effective scenes as well, my favorite being Norman’s insinuation into, and dismissal from, an upper class dinner party. None of that can solve the film’s central problem, however: Norman seems at times to be a comedy, at other times a tragedy, and at yet other times a parable, but succeeds at none of them. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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