TELLURIDE – Joseph Cedar’s follow up to 2011’s critically acclaimed drama “Footnote” is one of those movies where you see where it’s going pretty much the entire time. Granted, putting “Tragic Fall” in your film’s title might be a dead give away that something bad is gonna happen. The hope is there are just enough subtle twists and charismatic performances to peak your interest for an entertaining ride. After a slow start that’s precisely what happens. Cedar’s smart dialogue and direction lift “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” (hereby just referred to as ‘Norman’) above expectations.
Told in four acts, ‘Norman’ introduces us to Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere), a sixty-something New York talker making his way through life on his inherent ability to be a conduit for people who need a favor from someone else. Within a few minutes of meeting anyone he’ll always ask, “How can I help you?” He’s an old school consultant maneuvering a chessboard of influencers — mostly Jewish connected business or organizations — on a very small scale. So small in fact that he doesn’t even have an office. He walks around midtown Manhattan popping into coffee shops and stores whenever he has an important call to take. Norman is a character of the highest order. One you immediately don’t want to trust, but he finds a way through endless conversation to suck you in.
Norman’s life takes a dramatic turn when he introduces himself to Mica Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), an under secretary in the Israel government visiting the U.S. for a conference. Looking to impress Eshel and hoping to make a connection that will get him into a dinner party he desperately needs to attend he brazenly buys Eshel a $1,200 pair of shoes the politician doesn’t believe he can afford. When the next chapter starts we’ve jumped a few years ahead and — surprise — Eshel has just become the Prime Minister of Israel. And if you think that seemingly innocent gift is going to come back to haunt both of them you’re already way ahead of the pack.
Recognized in public as a good friend of Eshel’s (Norman is physically embraced at a public event with numerous photographers on hand to capture the moment), our hero initially believes he’s hit the jackpot. He’s become the man everyone needs to call to make something happen, a position of power he’s dreamed of his entire life. There’s the Wall Street investor (Harris Yulin) and his no. 2 (Dan Stevens) looking to use Eshel to get a connection at the U.S. State Department. There’s the board of his local synagogue where the head Rabbi (Steve Buscemi) is desperate to find someone to donate millions of dollars to save their congregation from being evicted from their longstanding house of worship. There’s his too sympathetic nephew (Michael Sheen) hoping to get said rabbi to officiate his marriage to his Korean fiancée. And Eshel himself is hoping to find someone who can put a good word in for his son to get into none other than Harvard University (a big no-no according to the movie). It either will all fall into place or it won’t. Oh, and did we mention the moment Norman stupidly says a bit too much about all of this to an Israeli embassy official (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who works in legal affairs? Could he really be that dumb?
At some point you have to wonder how Norman has even survived this long at what he does based on some of his glaring missteps, but Cedar has put just enough great actors around Gere that they find a way to sell it. One of Cedar’s strengths is his willingness to wait a beat and hold on his actor’s reactions. Something you can instinctively ignore when you have so many moving pieces to juggle. In fact, it feels as though at least half of Sheen and Gainsbourg’s performances are just their quiet, subtle responses to whatever Norman is up to at the moment. However, the entire movie’s conceit that Norman really is the fixer he thinks he is hinges on Gere.
In many ways, the 67-year-old actor is a strange casting choice for Cedar. He’s not Jewish nor does he immediately resemble someone you’d recognize in Norman’s line of work (it should be noted that most of the famous faces in the film are not Jewish either, even if their characters are). But, when he wants to, Gere has always had an ability to convincingly play a charming con man or someone so passionate in what they believe you’ll hang on every word (it’s sort of odd how little he’s played those types of roles over his career). With Norman he also has to tread a fine line of just how annoying can he make the character without causing the audience to lose sympathy for him. It may not rank up there as one of the best performances of his career, but ‘Norman’ wouldn’t work without him.
Cedar clearly wants ‘Norman’ to be more than just an entertaining web of character interaction. There are obvious points about Israeli politics that are actually just as relevant to America’s current political structure today as when Cedar started working on the script five years ago. He also introduces a slightly younger version of Norman (Hank Azaria) toward the end of the film to remind everyone that these types of characters have existed long before our hero and will exist long after. But when it comes down to it you remember the fun twists and a cast working at the top of their game more than anything else. And, frankly, that’s not a bad thing. [B+]