Like a master fisherman, Israeli writer/director Joseph Cedar has wisely used his pitch-perfect 2011 father/son dramedy Footnote as bait for his first English-language film, a tasty morsel by the name of Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.
Drawn to the lure, a big-name cast finds itself put to excellent use in the saga of Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere), a weaselly fellow who walks around wintertime NYC in a coat, cap and scarf, the earbud wires of his iPhone draping his neck like a yoke while a stack of his business card waits at the ready in his coat pocket.
A self-professed “businessman,” Norman worms his way into important people’s lives with a web of favors and empty promises to get what he wants – the specifics of which are murky and extend to precisely what kind of payment he receives beyond a potential status boost.
Add to this ambiguity the fact that Cedar never shows his protagonist in lodging that’s clearly his and Norman takes on a kind of mythical yet tragic tramp mystique as he tirelessly connects people and builds relationships of varying stability.
Into this netting wanders up-and-coming Israeli politician Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), one piece in an intricate puzzle involving Norman’s nephew lawyer Philip Cohen (Michael Sheen, somehow 20 years younger than Gere in real life) and powerful actual businessmen Bill Kavish (Dan Stevens), Jo Wilf (Harris Yulin) and Arthur Taub (Josh Charles).
As their darkly comedic adventures unfold, Cedar employs several creative flourishes, including a recurring motif involving phone calls and divider-less split screens. Without fail, the sight gag features Norman in a modest to crummy environment and the person with whom he’s speaking in a far nicer space that bleeds over into Norman’s, all but taunting him with the life he apparently craves.
There’s also one stunning quasi freeze-frame sequence where, similar to Evan Peters’ Quicksilver in the last two X-Men films, Norman moves around a roomful of people, taking in key figures even more perceptively than usual as their interactions have been slowed to a convenient crawl.
Flashy though these moments are, they only serve the story, which soon loops in Israeli government corruption investigator Alex Green (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and, in a stretch of inspired hilarity, a character played by Hank Azaria, someone for whom Norman truly isn’t prepared.
Living up to its subtitle’s promise, Norman weaves in several final act wallops that show just how carefully Cedar’s script has been constructed. Payoff after satisfying payoff, the filmmaker solidifies his place among the likes of fellow average human celebrators Jeff Nichols, Asghar Farhadi and the team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, artists whose realistic, well-rounded style is sadly rare these days.
Grade: A. Rated R. Now playing at Grail Moviehouse
(Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)