In Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, writer-director Joseph Cedar and his star Richard Gere combine to create the unforgettable character of Norman Oppenheimer, a Jewish Willy Loman who finally gets his chance to sits with the Movers and Shakers. Norman’s gig is to find two real businessmen that he does not know, pretending to each to be the confidante of the other, and introduce them, hoping that they make a deal (a deal that he neither engineers or invests in), hoping that he can get a percentage as a finder’s fee.
Norman has not so much a ready smile as a compulsive one. Unencumbered by any sense of boundaries or propriety, he literally stalks the rich and influential like paparazzi stalk celebrities. He feigns familiarity and drops names (“a high official, I can’t say his name”). All he time, he tries, usually successfully, to stifle the odor of desperation.
I’ve spent over thirty years in politics, and in my business, it is said that there are Who Ya Know consultants and there are What Ya Know consultants. The most effective consultants combine both. If you’re only at the table to peddle the influence of Who Ya Know, you might be a little shady. That’s Norman.
I know the world of powerful and important people, a world that hustlers try to crash, and I’ve known people like Norman. And I know the Whack-A-Mole pressure of shepherding home a complex, multi-faceted deal. Norman’s character, while extreme, rings true.
Norman is everybody’s acquaintance but has no actual reputation of his own. No one knows where he lives or what deals he has structured before. He is so mysterious that we find ourselves even asking, is he homeless?
This may be Richard Gere’s best movie performance. Gere perfectly distills Norman’s obnoxious ambition to play with the high rollers and then his stress and bewilderment once he’s gotten to the high stakes table. The critic Christy Lemire writes, “You may not be able to root for him, but you can’t help but feel for him.”
Norman ingratiates himself to an Israeli politician (Lior Ashkenazi) and hits pay dirt when the politician unexpectedly becomes prime minister. Norman says, “for once, I have bet on the right horse”, and indeed Norman did spot a uniquely optimistic quality that other observers failed to recognize and appreciate. For the first time, Norman is relevant and at the exhilarating center of power.
Lior Ashkenazi is brilliant as the politician, a man who is able to recognize his own specific gifts. He is ebullient, and it’s easy to see how people can be attracted to his charisma and infectious confidence. His vulnerability is an appetite for fine things and a neediness for the flattery and attention that a poser like Norman can offer. Ashkenazi played a totally contrasting, much more nerdy, character in Cedar’s 2011 inventive and mostly successful character-driven dramedy Footnote.
Norman is juggling multiple balls in air, and he must make all of his deals pay off because they are all interlinked. It’s kind of like making an exotic bet at the racetrack like an exacta, a superfecta or a pick 6. If one part unravels, the whole thing will come crashing down. Norman has always been able to get by on bullshit, but now he’s has gotten his wish – to play at the highest level, where, at some point you’ve got to deliver. Here’s where “the tragic fall” comes in.
The stellar performances of Gere and Ashkenazi are but two highlights of Norman’s superb casting: Michael Sheen, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Harris Yulin, Steve Buscemi. Josh Charles plays a magnate who can sniff out a bullshit artist and can dismiss one with blistering efficiency. The always excellent Isaach De Bankolé (Night on Earth) is memorable in a tiny part. Hank Azaria sparkles as a character who confounds Norman with a taste of his own medicine. And we get to hear the glorious singing voice of Cantor Azi Schwartz.
As they say, if you can’t run with the big dogs, stay on the porch. Big deals are not for little men.
Note: Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer weighs in at #16 on my list of Longest Movie Titles.