Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer follows the exploits of a small-time social climber with big-time ambitions. If you’re a long time Richard Gere fan then get ready; Gere swings for the fences with his charismatic turn as the film’s eponymous star, Norman. Writer/director Joseph Cedar provides Gere with weighty material to work with. Norman touches on themes of success, friendship, and compromise but the film’s plot, pacing, and performances never gel into a cohesive film.
Norman is what’s known as a fixer. Fixers are men and women adept at connecting people with mutual interests, fast-tracking deals, and just getting $#!t done. Norman is as crafty as they come and it doesn’t take long before I got the sense that he would trade in his own mother to help broker a deal. While trolling the streets of New York, Norman crosses paths with an Israeli dignitary named Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi). Norman dazzles Eshel with his verbal voodoo and he immediately finds himself in Eshel’s good graces. Three years later, Eshel becomes Israel’s Prime Minister and the connection to someone so powerful opens up a world of possibilities for Norman. Although Norman has dedicated himself to climbing up the ranks alongside New York’s elite, once his big opportunity arrives he may not be equipped for the role he covets.
Richard Gere’s role as Norman is the beating heart of the movie. Norman shows up in nearly every scene so if you don’t find the character even mildly compelling you’re in for a rough 117-minutes. The good news is that Gere turns in an excellent performance. Norman is obsequies, manipulative, and desperate yet Gere plays him in a way that doesn’t appear sleazy. He comes off as a tragic figure rather than a snake. Mostly, I appreciated Norman’s tact. He leverages his way into people’s lives and makes himself an asset through sheer force of will.
Much like Heather Ledger’s Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight, the Norman character is an enigma. Like The Joker, there is no backstory or interior monologue. We see the character in action without no understanding of what’s motivating him and why. Whether it’s money, fame, altruism, insecurity or ego is anyone’s guess. All we can do is sit back, enjoy the show, and draw our own conclusions.
From a different perspective, this film is a horror movie. Norman is inarguably predatory and engages in psychopathic behaviour. He stalks people on their morning runs, spams acquaintances with phone calls, and lies without hesitation. The character also reminded me of another famous psychopath with a bulldozer of a personality: Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin in the 1982 film, The King of Comedy. Both characters don’t take no for an answer. Pupkin ingratiates himself to people while probing for signs of weakness or hesitation. As soon as Pupkin smells a whiff of uncertainty he imposes his will. Cedar softens Norman’s cold-blooded pragmatism by scoring his scenes with playful music that wouldn’t be out of place introducing circus clowns.
Norman is far and away Gere’s film but I walked out of the theatre thinking about Lior Ashkenazi. Ashkenazi has the unenviable task of playing a likable politician and he pulls it off with charm and charisma to spare. Michael Sheen, Dan Stevens, and Steve Buscemi also show up but Cedar’s script doesn’t provide much for them to do. You could swap out their performances with no name actors without the film taking much of a hit.
Cedar uses some neat visual queues to help us track what’s happening outside and inside of Norman’s head. Cedar likes to zoom in for ultra-tight close-ups once Norman locks in on his target. It’s a simple tactic that lets us see every millimeter of nuance on characters’ faces as Norman applies his verbal ninjitsu. There is also a moment during a schmoozing event where Norman goes into Matrix-like bullet time. As time slows, Norman carefully evaluates everyone in the room; he marks potential stepping stones and makes note of those who crossed him. It’s one of the few moments where we capture a glimpse of the character’s fears and desires.
Norman starts dragging towards the end of the film and would benefit from tighter editing. Even though I was initially into the movie my interest began to drift by the midway point. When the third act arrived and Norman’s life spiraled towards disaster I had mentally checked out. Gere is always a treasure to watch and I want to see him continue to receive challenging roles but his strong turn here isn’t enough to make Norman a must-see film.