If you’re paying any kind of attention to the career of Richard Gere (and you still should be), you’ll notice that every couple of years, he comes up with yet another stunning performance in a smaller, off-the-beaten-path movie. It may seem like his career in on the skids since his blockbuster days of Chicago (celebrating its 15th anniversary this year), Pretty Woman, and Primal Fear are seemingly behind him for now. The truth is that this break from bigger, mainstream titles has offered him a certain amount of freedom to take chances. From Todd Haynes’ extraordinary I’m Not There to Arbitrage to his remarkable turn in 2014’s Time Out of Mind. Now Gere has returned again in a role like no other he has played before, that of Norman Oppenheimer in Norman, from Israeli director Joseph Cedar (Footnote).
Subtitled “The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer,” Norman is about a small man in a big pond who wants to bring people together in the hopes of becoming a man of prominence. Norman is not in it for the money, although he does charge a fee. No, he’s in it to feel like somebody. He wants to bring together powerful people—politicians, investors, religious leaders, bankers, and other people of influence—to make deals that benefit everybody. The legality of these deals can be worried about later on; Norman wants to make connections, for himself and for others, and he’ll lie about how well he knows someone he just bumped into them on the street. He’s a fearless, aggressive schlub of a guy who doesn’t take good-bye for an answer and never seems to get mad at anything. You could write a thesis on the mentality of this character and still only tell part of his story.
Also, we get almost no details about his real home life (or whether he even has a home). He lives on the phone, he carries his office in his briefcase, and he holds meetings at coffee houses or on the street. But one day, he happens to track down a rising star in the Israeli government named Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi) while he’s in New York at a conference. The two strike up a conversation and Norman buys the man an expensive pair of shoes that he can’t afford. Already, the wheels are spinning in Norman’s head. He wants desperately put together Eshel with men like those played by Josh Charles, Michael Sheen, Dan Stevens, and Steve Buscemi (who plays Norman’s influential rabbi). When Eshel eventually becomes the prime minster of Israel, suddenly Norman becomes one of the most important men in New York, simply because he bet on the right horse for the first time in his life.
But Norman being Norman, we know something is destined to go wrong. The first sign comes with a chance encounter with a woman named Alex (Charlotte Gainsbourg), whose occupation I will not reveal. The second is an even more bizarre encounter with a man Srul Katz (Hank Azaria), who gives Norman a pitch about his abilities as a deal maker that remind Norman of himself. He’s at first repulsed at shocked by this look in the mirror, and the self reflection rattles him substantially. It’s a fantastic moment.
Norman works on many levels, but even if the writing faltered or the direction was poor, Gere’s performance is so captivating that it would have carried the film. He’s not made to look handsome or younger than he is (in fact, I’d say he looks older than he does in real life), and it’s his scenes opposite Ashkenazi that are the most touching and gripping, and it becomes clear to Norman that he must commit the ultimate act of friendship in order to save Eshel’s career from flaming out in scandal. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film like Norman, and that’s a rarity and a real treat compared to what else is in theaters now.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema. To read my exclusive interview with Norman star Richard Gere, go to Ain’t It Cool News.