To play the title character in “Norman,” a strategist, a consultant who sometimes consults with consultants, Richard Gere dimmed his matinee idol looks with a bad haircut and thick glasses. It’s his best role in years, a character study that gives him the chance to go deep in a movie that isn’t as deep as it thinks it is.
Gere is Norman Oppenheimer, a down-at-the-heels New York City wannabe wheeler-dealer. He’s a connector, a facilitator who brings people together. In conversation he repeats, “I’d be very happy to introduce you,” like a mantra, seven words that could unlock the mysteries of the universe.
Everybody who’s anybody knows who he is but nobody knows anything about him. He’s a cipher who lives on his cell phone, has no office but does have nerve and something to prove. He’s so keen to impress Micha Eshelan (Lior Ashkenazi), up-and-coming Israeli politician he buys him a very expensive gift just minutes after meeting him. “I bought him a pair of shoes,” he says. “The most expensive pair of shoes in all of New York. Best investment I ever made.”
His investment pays off years later when Eshelan becomes the Prime Minister of Israel. Norman’s stock rises considerably but is his relationship with the world leader illegal and corrupt? Is Norman simply a delusional name-dropper or is he the one virtuous man in a den of wolves?
When we first meet Norman he is the living, breathing embodiment of disappointment. A man who rides a razors edge of failure every time he picks up his cell phone. He swallows his pride at every turn, trying to maintain dignity even as he is thrown out of a wealthy man’s home. He’s a goodhearted weasel who lies and cheats in his quest to do the right thing and Gere plays him as a man desperate to matter, to experience the kind of recognition that would come with the right connections.
It feels like he has tasted the good life and, as Eshelan says, “once you have been up, way up, you can’t settle for anything less.” Norman wants more but it’s never exactly sure what that means to him. He’s a fascinating, annoying character and Gere brings him to life.
There’s also interesting work from Ashkenazi, Charlotte Gainsbourg as a crusading lawyer and Steve Buscemi as a rabbi but the film feels cluttered, as though director Joseph Cedar was so fascinated by Norman’s ever spreading web of obligations, he couldn’t stop adding to it.
“Norman” is an in-depth look at a superficial man, a movie that works best when it focuses on Gere and not baroque political intrigue.