Despite the moderately tragic title, Richard Gere gives a tour-de-force performance in “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.”
He’s evolved into a terrific character actor, particularly when he plays damaged, fast-talking men, such as his character in 2007’s “The Hoax.” His turn here, as good-natured con artist Norman Oppenheimer, is perhaps his best portrayal yet.
In the capable hands of writer-director Joseph Cedar (“Footnote”), the story of this over-the-hill wheeler-dealer is equal parts pathetic, funny and maddening, but always consistently fascinating. And as involving as the story is with its impressive ensemble cast, “Norman” is above all a showcase for Gere’s substantial talents.
He brings striking nuance to the character, inspiring compassion despite his annoying chronic scheming. He insistently presents dubious investment opportunities to wealthy people — and he has a casual relationship with the truth, even when it comes to his own backstory. He fools no one, and hackles are always being raised in his presence.
Had he been played by a lesser actor, the overly eager and pushy Norman could easily have come across as a caricature. Gere finds a way to draw on our compassion; he just wants to be someone important. His is a classic American saga, a wannabe Horatio Alger who more closely resembles Willy Loman.
Obsessed with dealmaking (in an oddly affable way), Norman operates in the high-stakes world of moneyed Manhattan. With his ever-present ear buds and cell phone in hand, clad always in a tasteful camel-colored overcoat and grey English riding cap, he walks the streets with a scammer’s glint in his eye. His business card reads “Oppenheimer Strategies,” and he refers to himself as a consultant. Just what does he consult in? In a particularly effective scene on a train with a stranger (Charlotte Gainsbourg), she turns the tables on him after he tries to draw her out with a series of friendly, but intrusive, questions.
Norman seems to subsist on hard candies, crackers and pickled herring, ever-conscious of a life-threatening nut allergy. But he’s always hungry to make connections, even when they seem to be of no particular value to him. He meets someone, and it’s a knee-jerk response to make introductions, forge connections, broker a deal. But the art of his deal-making is questionable, forced and rarely paying dividends. Yet it’s no doubt you’d rather read his book on the art of the deal than a certain real estate tycoon turned president’s.
He doggedly and amiably pursues people: a rabbi (Steve Buscemi) in the corners of his synagogue, a young businessman (Dan Stevens) as he’s running in Central Park. Norman remains implacable, never getting angry when he’s brushed off, derided or dismissed unkindly. Still, one thing is cringingly clear for the viewer: Norman is always making a fool of himself. Despite the whiff of desperation that surrounds him, however, there’s an unflagging dignity to his manner. His business dealings may be a sham, but Norman has an unfailing sense of hope, decency and good humor.
When his lawyer nephew (Michael Sheen) likens him to a drowning man trying to flag down an ocean liner, Norman sees it as a point of pride. “But I’m a good swimmer,” he insists. The audience can see that Norman’s head is only just above water. He thinks of himself as trying to help, while others would seem him as shady and meddlesome. It’s this disconnect that captivates the viewer.
The film has a theatrical structure, broken into three acts and artfully staged, at times, in a variation of a split screen. The story would actually work well as a play, though it fortunately avoids the pitfalls of staginess. In well-edited sequences, we see Norman yakking away on his cell phone, as he moves in and out of city buildings. On the other side of the screen is the person he’s talking to, sometimes a world away, often rolling their eyes or grimacing at his persistence. Cedar cleverly employs this structure to mitigate the talkiness into which a film of this sort could easily fall. It would be much less compelling to watch as scenes cut back and forth between two people talking on the phone, than to get simultaneous visuals of each.
When we meet Norman he is clearly down on his luck. You can almost read his yearning thought bubbles as he befriends a mid-level Israeli politician (Lior Ashkenazi, “Late Marriage”). He insists on buying the man a pair of shoes he admires. That gesture symbolically forms the cornerstone of the ensuing saga. In the next act, the politician becomes the Israeli prime minister and remembers Norman’s kindness.
Norman revels in his luck. “For once in my life I bet on the right horse,” he tells his nephew. People actually begin taking his calls. Suddenly, he’s in a real position to broker meetings between the Jewish business elite and the government of Israel.
Cedar captures the vibrancy of New York, providing yet another homage to the singular energy of the city. And Gere captures the irrepressible and indefatigable essence of Cedar’s well-drawn character. Buscemi does a lot with his small part as an earnest rabbi, who tolerates then despairs of Norman’s bluffing. Hank Azaria is a hoot as a variation on Norman’s gung-ho con-man persona.
Norman doesn’t seem to truly care about making money. It’s about being someone who’s valued and admired. It’s an unalloyed pleasure to admire Gere, the former heartthrob now 66, in the finest role of his career .