“Norman” is the movie equivalent of a well-told anecdote. The story is original and entertaining, but it’s not completely sketched in. This is less a matter of details being suggested than details being left out altogether. What’s more, it has at its center a character whose life history stays unknown and whose work – his work is the subject of the entire film – remains mostly a mystery.
Richard Gere stars in the unlikely role of a pathetic wheeler-dealer, trying to live by his wits on the fringes of money and power. The casting turns out to be inspired, and Gere scores a minor triumph. He burrows into the character’s desperation and eagerness to please, lowering his status in every two-person encounter, while always staying alert to how he’s going over.
At the same time, the former matinee idol thing helps, because for some reason Norman is able to survive. He has a good smile, the kind that makes people want to say yes.
Joseph Cedar, an American who works mostly in Israel, wrote and directed “Norman,” and he throws the audience into Norman’s attempted deal making, even if the proposed deals are not entirely easy to follow. The important thing is that we understand the personal dynamic. Norman follows people he needs to talk to. He ambushes them on their morning run. He lies constantly, always to make himself look important and connected, and so we recognize him as someone hanging on by a thread – and we wish him well.
Norman’s gift, assuming he has one, is that he has a head for potential deals and knows whom he needs to connect with to make them happen. At the start of the film, his plan is to persuade a rich New Yorker and an Israeli politician to meet. He envisions some kind of multimillion-dollar deal, for which he would presumably get a percentage.
To that end, Norman stalks the charismatic politician (Lior Ashkenazi) and follows him down a New York street, until he finds precisely the right moment – in front of a store window – to start a conversation. The extended scene that follows is one of the film’s best. Cedar shows the beginning of the conversation from the other side of the window, so that we only see the men talking. Then they enter the store and we see and hear an elaborate seduction in which the seducer is nervous and tentative, but relentless; and the seduced knows what seducer is up to, but also sees the need there, and maybe some inner core of kindness.
This scene contains the extra something that the movie has in its favor. Though Norman and the politician’s dealings have only to do with external things, their connection seems to be deeper, like spirit talking to spirit. One guy is a politician and the other is incapable of an unguarded moment, but they understand each other in a real way.
Ashkenazi is a terrific actor, commanding and grand-scale in his aura, but with an unmistakable warmth. And Gere, cast against type, couldn’t be better. In a career of good performances, this is one of his best.
The impact of the performance is lessened by our knowing so little of the character or of the business goings-on, but perhaps Cedar knew his own movie and knew that this was the best he was going to get – a perfectly decent picture that leaves its audience wanting more.
☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Michael Sheen, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Dan Stevens.
Writer-director: Joseph Cedar.
Running time: 117 minutes.
Rating: R (some language).