A bundled up sixtyish man, his grayish hair boyishly flopping over his forehead, is always looking to make connections where the powerful gather in Manhattan. One day, he meets Israel's genial deputy trade minister Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi, "Late Marriage," "Footnote") and sees him as a means to getting into an exclusive dinner at the home of power broker Arthur Taub (Josh Charles, TV's 'The Good Wife'), a move that would impress mogul Jo Wilf (Harris Yulin, "Scarface," "Multiplicity"). When Eshel stops to admire a pair of designer shoes, he pushes him into Lanvin and when Eshel recoils at the price tags, he insists on buying those shoes as a gift. Eshel's deeply touched, but three years later when he becomes Prime Minister, that act proves fateful in "Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer."
Writer/director Joseph Cedar ("Footnote") became interested in the idea of the Court Jew as he was researching a film on Veit Harlan, the filmmaker behind the notorious "Jud Süss," anti-Semitic propaganda based on the 19th century story of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer (a more well known example is Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice'). We certainly recognize Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere) when we meet him, a nobody who drops names and spins stories hoping for admittance into circles he's perpetually looking into from the outside. He is both annoying in his persistence and sympathetic in his desperation, his obsequiousness bridging both. When Norman's gambit appears to pay off, we celebrate his success, his prideful joy in his inclusion infectious.
The film is chaptered, Act One introducing us to Norman and the intricate web he weaves, using his nephew Philip Cohen (Michael Sheen) to connect to Wilf through Wilf's right hand guy Bill Kavish (Dan Stevens, 2017's "Beauty and the Beast"). When Eshel is advised to stay away from 'the Norman Oppenheimers,' he fails to show at Taub's where Norman is privately humiliated and shown the door. Feeling guilty, Eshel calls Norman to apologize and is, as per Norman's usual modus operandi, comforted.
Act Two outlining Norman's rise in 'The Right Horse.' finds Philip thrilled to be at a reception for Israel's new PM with his uncle. Philip pushes the nervous Norman into the reception line, where we sweat along with him, but lo and behold, he's embraced and loudly declared an 'old friend' who will be Eshel's 'personal ambassador to New York Jews.' Flying high, Norman boards a train afterwards and as is his wont, chats up the woman sitting next to him. Alex Green (Charlotte Gainsbourg, "Antichrist," "Melancholia") turns out to be with the Israeli Consulate's legal department. Norman's manner makes her wary and when she sees him sitting in a station lobby, she calls, her suspicions born out. In the third act, Norman's house of cards begins to sway as he trades on favors that have yet to bear fruit, his nephew nervously pulling rank with Harvard's admissions office in return for his wedding ceremony being performed by Rabbi Blumenthal (Steve Buscemi) who in turn has Norman on the hook for a $7 million donor for their synagogue (that would be the unsuspecting Wilf). When a corruption scandal involving a 'mysterious New York businessman' breaks for Eshel in Act Four, Norman tries to help - by setting up a meeting with Alex Green - as he's followed through the city streets by Srul Katz (Hank Azaria).
Gere, who uses the vocal inflections of a toned down Woody Allen, is never less than sympathetic, his attempts to be meaningful to the powerful always as genuinely well intentioned as they are grasping. Cedar equates the man to a stray dog as he shows him taking phone calls in back alleys, found eating pickled herring on Ritz crackers in the synagogue kitchen by Rabbi Blumenthal, eyes always hopeful, tail always wagging. Eshel's staff may avoid his phone calls, but Norman is used when he's found useful, a hypocrisy discussed by Eshel and his wife in bed. We may never really find out anything about Norman, but our heart goes out to him thanks to Gere's deft performance. Cedar is crafty in his characterization of Micha, a nice man who perhaps avoided Norman's fate through sheer luck. Ashkenazi shades Micha as opaquely as Gere's Norman. All we know about him is that he may be in over his head, is genuinely fond of the macher ('he makes the lump on my chest go away'), and, like Norman, is well intentioned (Micha tells Norman that he could never buy a suit that costs more than the average Israeli could spend on a car). (As if there weren't enough surprising faces in the sprawling international cast, watch for Isaach De Bankolé ("The Limits of Control") as the Lanvin salesman.)
Cedar's film has a gentle comic touch, veering into cringe comedy. As he barrels towards his conclusion, he loses some momentum as we clearly see his destination, but he wraps with such grace, he makes his tragedy uplifting.
Robin gives "Norman" a B.
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