Susan Granger’s review of “Norman” (Sony Pictures Classics)
The satirical subtitle says it all: “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer,” as New York-born Israeli writer/director Joseph Cedar fashions a dryly witty character study.
Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere) is a prescient, if nebbishy con man who befriends an up-and-coming Israeli politician, Deputy Minister of Trade Mischa Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), impulsively buying him a pair of expensive shoes, costing a whopping $1,200.
Three years later, when Eshel has become the Prime Minister who may be able to bring peace to the Middle East, he remembers Norman, extending a gesture of recognition, which briefly elevates Norman’s influential status among New York Jewry.
Now 67, Richard Gere proves he’s become a first-rate character actor, embodying likeable, lonely Norman Oppenheimer, who – as the title cards testify – bet on “the right horse.”
Operating with nothing more than business cards, a cell phone and chutzpah, he’s a “hondler,” a master manipulator who insinuates himself into the proximity of power, making promises that he’s hard-pressed to deliver.
While Lior Ashkenazi is one of Israel’s leading stage, film and television actors, this is his first major role in an American film. His energetic Eshel evolves from an insecure wannabe to a near-messianic statesman. Not surprisingly, Ashkenazi’s next role is playing a young Yitzhak Rabin in the upcoming action-adventure “Entebbe.”
The supporting cast includes Steve Buscemi, as a rabbi, and Hank Azaria as a “nooj,” a pest, a well-intentioned “mensch” – like characters in the stories of Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Saul Bellow.
Plus, there’s Michael Sheen as Norman’s Wall Street lawyer nephew, Josh Charles as an elusive tycoon and Charlotte Gainsbourg as an Israeli government investigator, reporting to the Knesset.
In short: Norman Oppenheimer is a pathetic, shamelessly name-dropping cipher, a political Zelig, seemingly desperate to make himself a superficial footnote to history.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Norman” is a schmoozing 6, a challenging, cautionary tale about ambition gone awry.