Review: Norman

Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere) is a freelance political fixer, and in popular fiction terms such a description conjures up visions of slick men in three-piece suits juggling cell phones and commanding transactions of millions of dollars in fees and payoffs. Norman is anything but. We first see him badgering his nephew, a lawyer named Philip Cohen (Michael Sheen), for the contact information of one of his clients. Though Norman talks as if he’s experienced in the world of political connections, Cohen’s reaction is caution veering toward alarm. There’s something between the two men that’s unexplained but points to general mistrust on Cohen’s part of not only Norman’s motives, but his effectiveness. Norman is a hustler, but unlike the stereotype, he’s not a particularly good one.

Nevertheless, Norman’s annoying persistence eventually pays off, and he gains the confidence of the Israeli Deputy Minister of Trade (Lior Ashkenazi) by gifting him with a pair of shoes he could never afford for himself. However, the payback isn’t immediate. In fact, it’s three years before the deputy minister, now the prime minister, spots Norman at a political conference in Washington and, thanks to the attention, Norman is suddenly the talk of the town, the town meaning New York, where the cream of the Jewish political world live and work, rather than the nation’s capital. And for a brief time, Norman is a star, but as writer-director Joseph Cedar has been suggesting all this time, it’s the only time in Norman’s life he will be in that position, and his fall is the tragicomic comeuppance of the ultimate self-deluding man.

Along the way, Norman’s stories about a dead wife and daughter, not to mention his many allergies, become themselves the stuff of myth; his boasts of connections squandered in the past misty and frivolous. All Norman has going for him is his limitless capacity to debase himself for benefits that are never really clear. Ostensibly, he’s trying to help a New York synagogue receive much-needed funding for improvements, and he leads the rabbi (Steve Buscemi) so far on that in the end he does more infernal damage than he would had he done nothing at all. Was he striving so hard for the good of the synagogue, or for his own reputation, which, heretofore, amounted to pretty much nothing?

If this sounds like a plot better served by literature than cinema, Norman doesn’t present the kinds of highs and lows you might expect from a conventional political thriller like, say, Ms. Sloan. It’s mainly a character study, but in Gere’s skilled hands, the character never really comes clean in our minds. Norman’s follies are a mystery to us. Maybe to him, too.

Now playing in Tokyo at Cine Switch Ginza (03-3561-0707), Yebisu Garden Cinema (0570-783-715).

Norman home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2017 Oppenheimer Strategies, LLC

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