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

Who is Norman Oppenheimer? Gere hits his career best in a thoroughly odd though never less than engaging movie.

The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer subtitled The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, is a strange but rather wonderful outing for Pretty Woman star Richard Gere in an against-type career best.

Playing the eternally camel hair coated and flat-capped Norman Oppenheimer of the title, he is a New York-based, Jewish, opportunistic ‘fixer’, always looking to make connections in the old-fashioned pre-LinkedIn way, but is he a self-serving and shifty businessman pursuing dodgy deals, a faultlessly generous Good Samaritan or something in between?

The English-language debut of writer/director Joseph Cedar, whose previous films Footnote and Beaufort were both Oscar-nominated, clearly plays with the Shylock “court Jew” stereotype while keeping his audience guessing. The only familial connection we are privy to is Norman’s nephew Philip (Michael Sheen), who offers very little clue as to his uncle’s real circumstances.

Sheen joins Gere and Steve Buscemi – as Rabbi Blumenthal of the local temple were Norman sneaks in after dark for crackers and herring – in Cedar’s unusual play of casting non-Jewish actors as the American Jews, with Charlotte Gainsbourg also surprising in an Israeli role that comes to have much greater influence on events than at first it might appear.

Norman remains steadfastly a mystery. Possibly homeless, possibly widowed, he is a business matchmaker with a certainly self and others-deluding fantastical impression of his own connectedness who nonetheless carves his way from an obscure nobody to an almost somebody.

Springing on an opportunity to curry the good favour of a visiting Israeli government minister Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), Norman maxes out his credit card to gift the clearly better off man a pair of thousand-dollar shoes. An unlikely gambit, it nevertheless sets in motion the arguably more than moderate rise signalled by the title as circumstances, at least on paper, improve for the shuffling hustler. Though, as the inter-titled chapters and social climbing progress, what at first plays as generosity opening doors begins to slide into the impression of corruption as the also-telegrammed fall approaches.

As Norman’s wildly complex denouement unfurls, tilting into unlikely political thriller, there’s a great deal to be enjoyed about remaining in the dark. An intelligent and intriguing piece that only briefly loses its sharp focus, Cedar’s is the sort of strange that cinema needs more of.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords