Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Review: "Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer"

"Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer" is the story of a flimflam man with his heart, if not his methods, in the right place.

We've seen movies before about consummate power players, the sort of slick “House of Cards” types who slide through the intersecting webs of politics and finance with ease, relying on their connections with big names to close the killer deal or bend the right ear.

Norman Oppenheimer is not one of those fellows, though he would desperately like to be.

Richard Gere gives another dazzling performance in the small indie films that have become his bread-and-butter during an impressive late-career surge. His Norman is a sort of everyman nebbish, a good Jew who trolls the waters of the titans of New York, following in their shadows and hoping to poke his nose into the light.

His nephew, a rising young lawyer played by Michael Shannon, tries to warn Norman that he's a guy flailing in the sea trying to get the attention of ocean liners and massive submarines. "But I'm a good swimmer," Norman counters.

Norman is at once incredibly audacious in his ability to worm his way in to see just about anyone, but Gere and writer/director Joseph Cedar also gift him with a tremendous amount of fear and doubt. He's a guy at retirement age without any accomplishments or enduring monuments.

Unlike Willy Loman, he doesn't even seem to have a home or a family to go back to, though he'll mention his deceased wife used to work for so-and-so if it gets him in the door, or his daughter just graduating from graduate school and getting a job at XYZ prestigious firm.

It's clear Norman lies prodigiously, so we amuse ourselves by trying to parse out what’s real, what’s not, and what’s a hybrid of each.

Clad perpetually in a yellow camel overcoat, cap and old-school earbud microphone for his never-ending phone calls, Norman is as much a type as an actual person. Indeed, the right-hand men and women to the giants talk about the need to keep “the Normans” of the world away from those they serve and protect.

In a lot of ways, he reminds me of the John Candy character from “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” He’s a hustler who’s always hustling, a genuinely warm people person who’ll gently grab your arm and nudge you the way he’d like you to go. Talking ears off his what he does, dropping names and invitations for introductions.

Norman’s manipulations are quite transparent, and it’s up to you to decide if you want to go along for the ride or give him the cold shoulder.

Either way, Norman reacts pretty much the same: more attempts to ingratiate. At several points during the movie people more or less tell him, ‘Stop talking to me and leave me alone right now,’ and Norman will comply for a second, then follow with the inevitable, “Yes, but…”

The contretemps of the plot I’ll leave you to discover. Suffice it to say they involve finding $14 million so his Hebrew congregation can keep its building, with Steve Buscemi as the rabbi with the patience of Job; a billionaire financier (Josh Charles) whom Norman wants to entice; a Wall Street trader (Dan Stevens) and his dad, more fish for Norma’s hook; Charlotte Gainsbourg as a mystery woman on a train forced to listen to Norman’s prattling; and Hank Azaria as a younger, slightly more pathetic version of Norman himself.

The biggest connection Norman makes is with Micha Eshel, a young Israeli politician played by Lior Ashkenazi in a charismatic, attention-grabbling performance. Norman sees him at a conference, follows him around afterward, finally summons the courage to talk to him, and together they go into one of those New York men’s clothing stores where each customer gets their own attendant, and all the price tags include a comma.

For literally the price of a pair of shoes -- granted, possibly the most expensive pair of shoes in the world -- Norman finally gets his “in” to the big time.

A tale of tragedy that’s also mightily funny and discerning, “Norman” is another feather in Richard Gere’s already considerably festooned cap.

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