The title character of NORMAN: THE MODERATE RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF A NEW YORK FIXER, lives in a world of endless possibilities. Spinning schemes, half-truths, and complete fictions into a confident spiel about enormous profits and helpful introductions, he wanders the streets of New York stalking his prey of people on the edges of power to whom he can make a pitch. Not to take advantage of them. Norman is far too generous a human being for anything so crass. Norman may be a fixer, the guy who can do you a favor, can put you in touch with the right person, can change your life if you will do him the favor of letting him, but he is also keen to do good in the world. With a ready smile and tenacious bonhomie, he is an odd paradox of a people person that few people are happy to see. Played with consummate skill and deep humanity by Richard Gere, Norman’s latest, and greatest, adventure plays out as a tragi-comedy of manners, where the smiles of those in power, in the ones with whom he is desperate to ingratiate himself, are the same whether saying yes or no. And where Norman’s dream of finally being a big man comes true, but not the way he envisioned.
The latest scheme involves putting a minor Israeli official together with an investment banker. They don’t know each other, and the closest Norman comes to knowing either of them is the banker’s brusque assistant (Dan Stevens), who shoos Norman away with extreme prejudice. Undaunted, Norman tells him that he will tell the official that they’ve had a good talk. The look of pained disbelief from the assistant is an expression that will appear in varying degrees many time in the course of the film, and on many different faces looking Norman’s way.
Norman then stalks the minor official, the sardonically pragmatic Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), and strikes up a conversation that ends with the purchase by Norman for Micha of a very, very expensive pair of shoes. While the immediate plan, a dinner party with a wealthy investor doesn’t work out, the fullness of time pays high dividends. Three years later, Micha has become the Prime Minister of Israel, and, against all reason or expectation, has not forgotten the man who shod his feet so expensively. Suddenly, people are seeking out Norman, and Norman seizes the opportunity, not just for personal advancement, but also to help save his temple from being sold out from under its congregation. Unfortunately, his skill set has not evolved from the spiel in which he has trafficked his whole life. He just can’t seem to tell the truth, even with something as innocuous as a phone with the Israeli consulate officer (Charlotte Gainsbourg) he’s just met, and imposed on, during a train ride. He tells her he’s outside the station for no readily apparent reason, unaware that she can see him from where she is sitting on the other side of the terminal. With a larger stage, the schemes become bigger and far more complicated, adding a further urgency to Norman’s barely concealed desperation.
Joseph Cedar imbues the story with a sharp edge of black humor, as well as a visual sensibility that blends Norman’s inner optimistic eye and the reality with which is spars. Sometimes, space itself collapses, and both faces and voices merge into the innocuous patter of the insincere. Yet Norman, for all his wiles, remains an innocent amid the machinations around him. And this is Gere’s genius in the role. Norman is the guy who won’t leave you alone, but he’s also the guy who is so inescapably sincere, it’s hard to dismiss him. Not impossible, but hard. From the temple’s beleaguered rabbi (Steve Buscemi as his most harried), to Norman’s lawyer nephew (Michael Sheen) whose persimmon mouth twists in all kinds of disapproval and impatience with his dreamer of an uncle, there is something in Norman’s genuine warmth and counterintuitive lack of guile that makes them want to believe, even though they know better. Cedar showcases Gere’s skill, keeping the camera on his face as verbal insults land, but don’t faze him, the expression acknowledging the setback but springing back with a radiant smile and that genuine warmth. It’s possible to read an avalanche of emotions playing across Gere’s face, each perfectly defined despite the fleeting speed at which they appear and give way to the next. So astute is Gere than for the initial meeting, ambush to be honest, between Norman and Micha, Cedar pulls the camera away, recording the conversation as a pantomime through the window in which the magical shoes are displayed. We may not know the exact words being spoken, but there is never a doubt about what is being said.
NORMAN makes us root for the guy who is the author of his own troubles, but whose innate decency is a shining beacon in a world of ethical compromise. It’s heartwarming, cringe-inducing, and endlessly fascinating with its bumps of irony and bracing doses of absurdity.