It’s a trope as old as the movies—and Jewish culture in New York. Everybody has an uncle or an in-law who specializes in connecting people to other people who might be able to do each other a favor some time. It’s the thrill of adding people as the web of connections becomes more intricately tangled that makes these usually small-time operators feel like big shots.
But what would happen if somebody involved in this roundelay of minor obligations suddenly came into a position of real power? How would that reverberate throughout the web—especially for the webmaster who constructed the whole thing? That’s the question posed by Norman, a droll, offbeat dramatic comedy of truth and consequences written and directed by New York-born Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar. It stars Richard Gere as a dealmaking, old-school New York “fixer” who gets in way over his head.
We first meet Norman Oppenheimer (Gere) trying to jump-start some shady-sounding financial scheme. It’s a confusing way to start the movie, but the details of this particular scheme aren’t important; all that matters is seeing Norman in action. Against his better judgment, his nephew, Philip (Michael Sheen) supplies his wheedling uncle with one bit of information, which sends Norman to Central Park at the crack of dawn to stalk a financial investor (Dan Stevens) on his morning run.
Roaming the city streets in a snap-brim cap, long coat, and muffler, earbuds constantly plugged into his phone, Norman doesn’t seem to actually live anywhere; he’s always on the move, looking for his next opportunity. (His business card reads “Oppenheimer: Strategies.”) One afternoon, he buddies up to a minor Israeli diplomat, Micah Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi) that somebody in his web wants to meet. That meeting fails to happen, but in the course of the hour or so they spend together, Norman insists on buying Eschel an expensive pair of shoes. (Shoes that will “last longer than the government I serve,” sighs Eshel, referring to his beleaguered party back home.)
Yet three years later, Eshel has become the Prime Minister of Israel. To Norman’s amazement, Eshel remembers him fondly when he goes to the reception at the New York consulate, introducing Norman to so many influential people (conveyed in a swoony, dreamlike montage) that Norman has to whip out his ever-present yellow legal pad and scribble down all their names and who they know on his way home.
But fortunes rise and fall as truth becomes ever more complicated and elusive. Players in the unfolding drama include Alex (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who’s investigating possible corruption in Eshel’s ties to New York, and Rabbi Blumenthal (Steve Buscemi), leader of Norman’s synagogue, who needs Norman’s help when their temple is facing eviction. Suddenly Norman finds himself where he thought he’s always wanted to be—right in the middle—but not necessarily in a good way.
Gere is effective as Norman. Well-meaning, but annoying in his relentless drive to link people up (“It’s the third time in five minutes you’ve tried to introduce me to someone,” Alex tells him), he’s desperate to embroider any chance remark or random encounter into a fantasy of significance and personal relationships that does not actually exist. When Eshel’s people stop taking his calls, they decide to brand him as a “delusional name-dropper.” (Hmm, sound like anyone else we know in the public eye?)
Ashkenazi is terrific as Eshel—debonair and determined to embrace compromise to keep himself and his agenda afloat. (He starred in the fine 2001 Israeli drama Late Marriage, about a thirtysomething bachelor involved with a Moroccan divorcee whose parents are pressuring him to marry a virgin.)
Norman has some sharp, sly moments, but the pacing often unravels over two hours, especially when focus shifts to complicated Israeli politics. Filmmaker Cedar tries to jazz it up with split-screen and other busy techniques, but the story feels a bit hollow. As sympathetic as Gere often is, his character is written as an empty archetype, who can’t quite sustain the whole movie.
With Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Michael Sheen, and Steve Buscemi. Written and directed by Joseph Cedar. A Sony Classics release. Rated PG-13. 118 minutes.