A noble failure from a noteworthy filmmaker, Joseph Cedar’s “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” — the unofficial winner of this year’s “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Award for the most fanciful title — mines a classic storytelling tradition in order to spin a darkly comic parable that often feels as unkempt and intolerable as its title character.
A defiantly Jewish bit of mishegoss that was conceived as a U.S. / Israeli co-production, the film is a wry, self-defeating response to the anti-Semitic tradition of stories about conniving “Court Jews” who talk their way into becoming one of the king’s most trusted advisors. Pin-balling between tragedy and farce so fast that it can be hard to follow, “Norman” unfolds like a Coen brothers comedy that has too much chutzpah and not enough charm.
Richard Gere, in yet another one of his wildly adventurous late career performances, stars as Norman Oppenheimer, the kind of unctuous New York caricature who will suck up to anyone who can stand his unchecked opportunism. They call him a “fixer,” which must be Yiddish for “human gnat.” As desperate to matter as he is devoid of anything to offer, Norman has needled his way into the lives of every Jew in Manhattan, offering a business card and a small favor to any of the poor souls who happen to bump into him at a cocktail party or sit next to him on a train.
Constantly yammering into the microphone of his earbuds, the man has never had a conversation that he didn’t treat like an investment, and that goes doubly true when he’s talking to his nephew (Michael Sheen). There isn’t a Jewish person on this planet who doesn’t know a guy like Norman, a guy who goes a bit too far out of his way to help you out because he subsists on collateral the way that the rest of us do on genuine human connections. But ingratiate yourself with enough people and one of them is bound to return the favor — Norman doesn’t know it when the film begins, but his latest “friendship” is the one that’s finally going to pay off.
Lior Ashkenazi, the strikingly charismatic Steve Carrell lookalike who also starred in Cedar’s jaw-dropping “Footnote,” plays Misha Eshel, a low-ranking Israeli minister who has the strange fortune of meeting Norman outside of a high-end midtown shoe store. In a prolonged sequence that flows with the droll comic genius that has become its director’s signature, our hero buys his new pal with an insanely expensive pair of loafers. It’s the kind of disturbingly generous act of kindness that ties to you to someone for life, that means you’ll always have to answer their phone calls (Norman never texts).
And boy does that dynamic work out just fine for the fixer when Misha becomes the prime minister of Israel three years later. Cedar, a gifted poet of those mortifyingly hilarious moments that peel men of everything but their pathos, makes a meal of the scene in which Norman is roped into a handshake line and publicly forced to find out if Eshel still remembers him. He does, but how that unusual relationship develops into an international crisis involving Palestine, Harvard, and the fate of a Manhattan temple run by rabbi Steve Buscemi… well, that’s unclear even after the movie has ended and Norman has plummeted to the (questionably) tragic end promised by the title.
Gere, to his credit, leans hard into every pathetic moment, fully embracing his role as a man who runs a Ponzi scheme of small favors in which he’s the only person who doesn’t get a payout. “I’m a good swimmer as long as I keep my head above water” he tells his nephew, but it’s easy to see that Norman has spent his entire life on the verge of drowning. What makes the character so fascinating, and what makes you wish that Cedar had furnished him with a more emotionally coherent movie, is that Norman knows that he has nothing to offer people beyond his ability to connect his “clients” to people who do. He knows that he’s a tragic figure, he knows that he’s a footbridge between worlds, and that his only purpose is to be walked over.
But Cedar’s quasi-screwball script, the Israeli filmmaker’s English-language debut, is every bit as desperate and erratic as Norman, himself — it’s nice that the movie doesn’t pass judgment on its eponymous fixer, but it’s infuriating that it has to assume the character’s worst qualities in order to remain that balance. Every compelling passage (most of which involve either Ashkenazi or Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays a curiously malignant government figure) is followed by a strained one in which Norman sinks deeper into the quicksand of his convoluted social world. Every clever instance in which Cedar finds a fluid visual expression of his hero’s downward spiral is followed by an enervating one in which the director seems flat-footed.
The film arrives at its last shot with a sense of purpose, but Cedar’s clumsy plotting and uncharacteristically sterile compositions suggest that he’s charted the least enjoyable route to the film’s satisfying finale. Here’s hoping that the immensely talented auteur can walk over Norman like everyone else does and use him as a stepping stone to something better. It’s what Norman would want.
“Norman” premiered at the 2016 Telluride Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release it in 2017.