Being Norman Oppenheimer

Joseph Cedar’s ‘Norman’ shows the humanity within the nudnik.

Joseph Cedar’s ‘Norman’ (photo credit: PR)
Joseph Cedar’s ‘Norman’
(photo credit: PR)
Everyone knows a guy like Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere), the dogged and doomed schemer of Joseph Cedar’s latest movie, Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.
Norman is that uncle who always wants you to meet someone he assures you will advance your career or he’s the guy who never gives you a straight answer when you ask him what he does and always seems to be working some angle.
Norman is the first English-language film by Cedar, the American-born Israeli director of the Oscar-nominated films Beaufort and Footnote. It is anchored by Richard Gere’s brilliant performance in the title role, which emphasizes the humanity inside the nudnik. The actor brings out the vulnerability and disappointment beneath Norman’s hyper-confident facade.
Norman is a great character study of this very familiar type. He is a kind of cousin to Clifford Irving, the writer who claimed to have a Howard Hughes memoir, whom Gere portrayed in the fact-based 2006 movie The Hoax. But while Gere’s Irving seemed intoxicated by his own lies, Norman gets increasingly desperate as the story progresses. He is older and doesn’t have much time left to put together that one great deal that will completely reverse his fortunes. He talks about a wife who died and a daughter, but it’s not clear if these women are or were real. He wanders the city talking on his headset but doesn’t seem to have a home; and when he’s hungry, he sneaks into a synagogue and eats herring and crackers. The devil is in the details here, from the scraps of paper where Norman scrawls his notes and phone trees to the camel hair coat he keeps spotless.
“You’re like a drowning man trying to wave at an ocean liner,” his nephew (Michael Sheen) tells him in one of the film’s key moments.
“But I’m a good swimmer. Don’t forget that,” Norman replies.
The way Norman stays afloat for a good chunk of the movie revolves around an encounter with an Israeli politician, Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi). Norman very skillfully stalks the out-of-favor Eshel when the Israeli is in New York at a conference.
At an expensive men’s clothing store, Norman insists on treating Eshel to a very pricey pair of shoes, and this creates a bond between them. When Eshel becomes prime minister a few years later, Norman congratulates himself, exulting, “For once, I bet on the right horse.”
How Norman tries to cash in on his connection to Eshel is a story that is fun and full of twists. These involve connections and deals he tries to make among a diverse group of powerful men, including a blustering, self-important rabbi (Steve Buscemi) of an upscale Manhattan synagogue — genius casting — and not one but two billionaire financiers (Josh Charles and Harris Yulin). Other members of this uniformly excellent cast include Charlotte Gainsbourg, Dan Stevens, Hank Azaria and Isaach De Bankole from abroad, and Tali Sharon, Neta Riskin and Yehuda Almagor from Israel.
But the key relationship in the movie is the one between Norman and Eshel. It seems to have been inspired, at least superficially, by former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who is currently serving a prison term for accepting bribes, and Morris Talansky, the financier whose testimony helped convict him. But Norman and Eshel are very different from their real-life counterparts. Eshel is a sympathetic character at first, down on his luck, and grateful for Norman’s support and attention. Later, he is intoxicated by his own power, and although he talks about brokering a peace deal, he seems more focused on the fame and honor it will bring than anything else. In short, he’s a typical politician, however different he may seem at first.
Ashkenazi, an extraordinary actor, faces a challenge making Eshel interesting and — intermittently — sympathetic, but he is able to pull it off.
It’s a low-key performance, but so masterful that I was disappointed when the character behaved as virtually any politician would under similar circumstances. Like Norman, I wanted to think that Eshel was special.
And, like Eshel, I wanted to think that there was more to Norman than just some guy who uses people until he finds himself out of his depth. Cedar really gets into Norman’s head, an often uncomfortable place to be. As much as we would like to look down on a guy like Norman, Cedar makes us see ourselves in him. He does this in part by bravura effects that emphasize Norman’s point of view, such as a scene where Norman reconnects with Eshel at the conference of an AIPAC-like organization, and everyone around them freezes. As Norman suddenly gets the attention and respect he has always craved from the people who are important to him, he visualizes all these acquaintances just as heads because he doesn’t see them as real people but merely as sources of approval.
On some level, this can be seen as an allegory about American Jewish-Israeli relations, but it would be a mistake to go too far with that. Both Norman and Eshel see their interactions as a zero-sum game, and perhaps that is the real tragedy to which the title makes reference. But the script is more than just a metaphor for the tensions between American Jews and Israelis.
There is a great deal of dialogue in the film, much of which is over the phone, which Cedar tries to enliven by using a split screen, showing the two people talking as if they were in a room together. It can be demanding to follow Norman’s deals through all these conversations, and there are some scenes late in the film that drag. But Norman’s epic quest to make a success out of his life soon gets back on track, and a brief expression on Gere’s face reminds us that we are rooting for Norman, in spite of all his duplicity and how wary we are of the real Normans in our lives.
This is Cedar’s fifth feature film, and it brings to the foreground a theme that has been present in all of his movies: identity and what it means to be an insider and/or an outsider. In the movie Campfire, he examined the tension between a religious/nationalist identity and the freedom afforded by the larger world, through a portrait of an observant woman who became an outsider in her own community after she lost her husband.
Footnote was the story of an aging scholar who longs, in spite of his uncompromising nature, to be embraced by the establishment (exemplified by being awarded the Israel Prize); and his much more engaging and politically astute son (played by Lior Ashkenazi), who has all the honors in the world, except the full respect of his father. The widow and the father are rigidly honest and have to come to terms with not getting the approval they seek, with not being true insiders.
Norman, on the other hand, is all compromise, all wheeling and dealing, but he remains the quintessential outsider. The tension comes from whether he will make the deal of his dreams and win on his own terms or crash and burn, and what that crash will teach him if it comes.
But who Norman becomes is open to debate. It’s the art of the deal that Cedar makes with the audience that Norman remains unknowable. In spite of his affability, Norman keeps his true self hidden. Cedar’s refusal to give us any easy answers is what makes this film memorable and, ultimately, moving and real.
NORMAN Directed by Joseph Cedar With Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Steve Buscemi, Dan Stevens, Charlotte Gainsbourg Running time: 117 minutes In English and Hebrew.
Check with theaters for subtitle information.