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*** (out of five)
Richard Gere continues his post-leading man career investigating the lives of New Yorkers and their relationships to money, power and ethics in the ludicrously over-titled Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (let’s call it Norman for short), an intriguing and undeniably original little oddity from New York-born, Jerusalem-based director Joseph Cedar (Footnote, Beaufort).
Norman Oppenheimer (Gere) is a self-described “consultant”, President of “Oppenheimer Strategies”. While he has a high-falutin’ sense of purpose, his actual professional existence consists of desperately trying to connect people in order to curry their favour. He literally works the streets, loitering near places of power, worming his way into the rooms that may lead to the rooms adjacent to the rooms where it’s happening. The title describes him as a “fixer”; the Roman and Greek comedy theatre had a similar stock character type, the “Parasite” or “Flatterer”. He big-notes himself, is obnoxiously obsequious, and – worst of all – lies, all in the seemingly vain pursuit of feeling important.
Then, perhaps inevitably, one day one thing finally leads to another. He meets and performs his cringe-worthy sycophancy on a visiting Israeli Deputy Minister; three years later, that man is Israel’s Prime Minister, and not only hasn’t he forgotten Norman, his memories of him have softened into an overly generous affection. Norman finally becomes influential, without any skills or abilities, and his “moderate rise” must lead to a “tragic fall”.
As I’ve said, it’s an original story. The closest similar film I can recall is Being There (Hal Ashby, 1979) in which Peter Sellers played an uneducated, intellectually-challenged but beautifully spoken gardener whose horticultural tips are mistaken for wisdom and who ends up advising the President of the United States. But in that film, Sellers’ character Chance was an innocent; Gere’s Norman is absolutely complicit in his own rise, however unwarranted, and, unlike Chance, we are rooting for his fall.
At least, I was. I found Norman so deeply disagreeable that the first act of the film almost drove me from the theatre. However, once the story kicked in (and, particularly, once the excellent Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi came onto the scene as Micha Eschel, the deputy minister) I found myself drawn in. Like Being There, Norman is constructed and presented as a bit of a fable, with simple, recurring visual motifs and warm, overtly romantic cinematography. And, with its conceit of a ludicrously under-skilled man assuming a position of unearned influence, it has acquired, between shooting and release, a depressing relevance.