Norman Oppenheimer would be happy to introduce you to his nephew’s co-worker’s brother-in-law’s former college roommate who happens to operate the largest hedge fund in New York, but not to worry: they have been friends for years, they play golf together and his wife used to babysit him back in the day. Either way, nothing would give Norman more pleasure than to make the introduction. This never ending chain of “I know a guy” is the premise of Israeli writer and director Joseph Cedar’s (“Footnote”) “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer,” a film centered around Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere), a man who makes his way by name dropping and navigating the deep web of relationships between colleagues, cousins and consultants, leading to his eventual downfall.
Richard Gere (“Pretty Woman”) as Norman — decked out in a camel peacoat, newsboy cap and plaid scarf — takes business calls in Starbucks bathrooms and the post-it section of Staples. He speaks with the confidence of a man with experience and knowledge, he improvises to the extreme and has a severe peanut allergy. Norman follows important men and attends conferences with his mysterious business card and a firm handshake at the ready. Yet Norman, an operator of Shakespearean proportions, manages to rise to the top of the political ladder by simply buying a pair of nice shoes for a budding Israeli politician. Little did Norman know that he bet on the right horse. Norman Oppenheimer remains an enigma, even to the people who rely on him. He just wants to help, he says. He wants to do what he can — for better or worse, Norman needs to be involved. Norman’s selflessness, his burning desire to be of assistance, make connections or help in any way, eventually lead to his “tragic fall.”
The cast of “Norman” reads like a list of some of cinema’s best actors, from Steve Buscemi (“Fargo”) as Rabbi Blumenthal to Michael Sheen (“Masters of Sex”) as Norman’s nephew to appearances by Dan Stevens (“Beauty and the Beast”) and Josh Charles (“The Good Wife”) as New York businessmen. The cast is rounded out by Richard Gere’s stellar performance as the titular character. Gere’s Norman is a textbook macher (Yiddish for Someone who arranges, fixes, has connections), a combination of Shakespeare’s Shylock or Peter Sellers’s Chance Gardener from “Being There” with a smattering of the neuroses of Woody Allen.
The film splits its time between English and Hebrew, between the worlds of a New York Jewish man sneaking herring from his synagogue for dinner and the chaos of the Knesset (Israeli Parliament). Norman has his foot in both worlds, making associations and setting up dinners between the two: “How’s eight o’clock?” Norman is an expert at involving himself without revealing himself, and he becomes necessary enough to stick around but not enough of a nuisance to get the boot. Norman just wants to help others, from his friends in the Israeli government to the synagogue he calls home to the nephew he loves, but to them, Norman is just being, well, Norman.
The Normans of the world want nothing more than to feel necessary, to be wanted. They don’t need fame, fortune or even recognition. In fact, their anonymity is perhaps their biggest strength. The Normans want to be close to greatness, just to taste it perhaps for a moment. While Gere’s performance as Norman is simultaneously heartbreaking and thought-provoking, the real star of the film is his tragic irony and the fact that the ultimate fixer can fix anything but himself.