Film Review: Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

Richard Gere nails New York Jewish as the eponymous jack-of-no-trades determined to be a somebody to everybody powerful until fate defies this fixer’s schmoozy seductions.
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If memory serves, Joseph Cedar’s highly entertaining Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer suggests, especially by way of its main character, Ted Kotcheff’s 1974 The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and its Montreal-based story of a similar kind of burning Jewish ambition for acceptance (Saul Bellow characters may also come to mind). Importantly, Norman marks an impressive English-language debut for Cedar, whose previous Beaufort and Footnote both received Oscar nominations in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

While Cedar has drawn on the centuries-old iconic “court Jew” for inspiration, his rendition here is pure New Yawk, pronounced more British than outer borough, as the story, when it doesn’t briefly detour to Washington or Israel, is steeped in the upper reaches of its Manhattan’s Jewish community—the rich, the powerful, the big machers.

In spite of so ethnic an immersion, this black comedy with both Woody Allen-ish and tragic touches, looms as nonsectarian bait for quality-seeking art-house fans. Not least of the film’s appeal (and cross-border potential) are performances from such bold-print non-Jewish talent as Richard Gere, Michael Sheen, Steve Buscemi and Dan Stevens, who all prove (recalling the famous Levy’s Rye Bread commercial decades ago) you don’t have to be Jewish to play it or enjoy it.

Norman quickly establishes its hero/anti-hero (you decide) Norman Oppenheimer (Gere) as the wannabe mover and shaker to everyone in his orbit except, ultimately and tragically, himself. (“Shlemazel" might be the word for him.) “Nobody” and “loser” are also appropriate for Norman. With hints of failed business endeavors behind him, he doesn’t have a real job, but, dropping names like a talking phone book, pretends to know everybody who’s anybody and springs at any opportunity to connect people to get their problems solved. Such a job description requires a nonstop shoring up of old contacts and stocking up on new ones for his growing “I-can-get-it-solved-for-you-because-I-know-so-and-so” database.

Yes, Norman looks a tad schlubby (the glasses, the roomy clothing, the tad nerdy hairdo, the slouch), but who’s looking when you’re hearing the important names of power-wielding money people Norman “knows”? And to most, he’s just so likeable. To those who don’t know him, his fearless, pushy, no-loss-for-words and not quite offensively aggressive manner don’t give him away, nor does his “Oppenheimer Strategies” business card.

Norman’s “strategy” is early established when he stalks jogging young executive Bill Kavish (Dan Stevens) in Central Park and then, name-dropping, presses him for a meeting with his mogul boss Jo Wilf (Harris Yulin). It’s another slammed door, as Kavish well knows Norman’s m.o. But another door swings opens. The prey, whom Norman spots at a conference, is the minor but promising Israeli politico Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), in New York for a few days. Norman stalks him afterwards and eventually accosts as Eshel eyes expensive shoes in a fancy Madison Avenue shop. Norman chats him up skillfully and even more skillfully ends up buying the guy the shoes. Norman gained his attention by name-dropping one Arthur Taub (Josh Charles), a Manhattan billionaire at whose home that evening, Norman bullshits, he’ll be attending a dinner party. And Eshel is invited as Norman’s plus-one. Norman shows up uninvited, but promising a doubtful Taub that Eshel will be his guest. When Eshel doesn’t appear, Norman is kicked out of the elegant townhouse for being the crasher that he is and the upper echelons of the community know him to be. Lonely, humiliated and apparently without family, except for his lawyer nephew Philip Cohen (Sheen), Norman returns to his modest apartment defeated but far from down and out.

Those gift shoes pay a dividend when three years later he shows up at a D.C. conference honoring Eshel, who has been elected Israeli Prime Minister. Norman gets a taste of glory when Eshel sees him in the crowd and hails him to all as a best friend. The glory gained in the Washington encounter now has former doubting Thomases sucking up to Norman. But fate steps in when Eshel experiences a change of fortune. Much follows and it ain’t pretty. But it’s pretty ironic and a lot of fun.

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