Norman Oppenheimer, Richard Gere’s title character in writer-director Joseph Cedar’s new movie, is a walking LinkedIn, if LinkedIn had defective code. Norman lives to connect people. Self-servingly curious, he’s a relentless interrogator of everyone he meets — he’s the mosquito that won’t leave you alone — until his marks end up accepting his card, or a bribe, or a dinner invitation with one of his clients.
As a forger of byzantine associations that look awfully like pyramid schemes, Norman is ambitious. He plasters himself to the walls of power, and sometimes he gets in. His profession, if you can call it one, is as deliberately indeterminate as his company name, Oppenheimer Strategies. When pressed, he calls himself a “consultant.” Another label can be found in the film’s subtitle: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.
When we think of fixers in the movies, we think of Michael Clayton, George Clooney’s fast-talking, ultra-confident corporate janitor, the man called in to scrub malfeasance at the highest levels of government and business. Norman orbits those worlds too, but he’s a shambling schlub, a figure who wins friends and influences people more out of pity and persistence than a matinee physique or magnetic personality.
For Gere, who can easily out-Clooney Clooney if given the chance, Norman represents a rare gift, an opportunity to tone down his inherent charm, turn up his Brooklyn brogue and chart a new archetype. Clad in neutral browns, his silver hair hanging in a Warholian flop or contained in a flat cap, Gere looks and sounds like he’s stuck in a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode where the laughs are few and far between. He shows us tools in his kit we’ve never seen before, and he’s often a revelation.
Would that his efforts were expended on a better movie. I couldn’t disagree more with some of Norman’s early reviews touting it as a deep character study of rare maturity. The film I saw was all plot, leaving Norman as a vacuum of unexplored possibility.
In the first of its divided chapters, titled “A Foot in the Door,” Norman ingratiates himself into the life of a visiting foreign minister, Israel’s Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), buying him a thousand-dollar pair of shoes in exchange for access. The rest of the film takes place three years later, after Eshel has risen to become his nation’s prime minister, a man who, to his potential downfall, has not forgotten his good American friend Norman.
This is where Cedar’s film tends to lose itself in a muddle of complications — of plot threads that unravel as soon as they’re introduced. Excellent character actors, eccentrically cast, waft in and out of the movie’s haze: Steve Buscemi as a rabbi seeking Norman’s financial contacts to save their soon-to-be-demolished synagogue; Charlotte Gainsbourg as an Israeli intelligence official who’s too smart to play Norman’s games; and Hank Azaria as a rival consultant with a shared specialty in the Jewish diaspora, stalking his competition through the streets of Manhattan. There’s also a subplot involving Norman’s orthodox nephew (Michael Sheen), who is planning on marrying his Korean fiancée, and who can use his uncle’s services in facilitating a conversion.
It’s all quite busy and tiresome, aided in no way by Cedar’s direction, at once pretentious and juvenile. Cedar has made some fine films in his native Israel, including the war drama Beaufort and the elegant, engrossing Footnote. And he certainly understands the Israeli-American relationships at the heart of Norman. But the tone of his English-language debut is all wrong. The ambling whimsy of Jun Miyake’s musical score signals the film’s intentions as an unserious picture early on, to the point that it becomes almost laughable when Cedar adopts operatic gravitas in the movie’s final stanzas.
As a visual storyteller, Cedar is overly smitten with distracting split-screens and rear-projection sleights of hand, efforts as damaging to the story’s comprehension as they are unnecessary. Through it all, Norman remains a cipher whose psychology is impenetrable, a man dedicated to connecting others while having no life — and no visible home — of his own. The irony would be heartbreaking, if we cared enough.
NORMAN. Director: Joseph Cedar; Cast: Richard Gere, Liro Ashkenazi, Michael Sheen, Steve Buscemi, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Josh Charles; Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics; Rating: R; Opens: Today at AMC CityPlace, Cinepolis Jupiter, Movies of Lake Worth, Cinemark Boynton Beach, Movies of Delray, Cinemark Palace, Regal Shadowood and Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton; the Classic Gateway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale; Cinemark Paradise in Davie; AMC Aventura, Cinepolis Coconut Grove and Regal South Beach.