Everybody knows a Norman, and Normans almost by definition claim to know everyone. They are what Malcolm Gladwell calls “connectors”: naturally wired to serve as hubs in a vast social network, taking personal pleasure in collecting acquaintances and introducing them to one another in order to get things done. In “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer,” writer-director Joseph Cedar has created such a vivid example of the archetype that its protagonist’s name can serve as shorthand for such personalities going forward — the way Marty means mama’s boy or Pollyanna suggests an incurable optimist — that is, if a movie so intricately situated within the world of New York Jewry can manage to reach an audience beyond the insular community it depicts. For this it will rely on Richard Gere, whose acting work keeps getting better late in his career, even if his drawing power is on the decline.
If Norman Oppenheimer had a Facebook page, he would surely be pushing the site’s 5,000 “connections” limit. A chronic exaggerator and incorrigible name-dropper, he’s constantly on the lookout for new friends — which is only pathetic insofar as we can never really make out his angle. That probably explains why people tend to react skeptically at first. Yes, Norman is a “generous Jew” (as others dub him), selflessly offering to help out everyone he meets, though his insistent over-friendliness makes it all too clear that one day, he’ll come asking for those favors to be repaid.
Because Cedar has cast Richard Gere in the role, Norman makes a winsome first impression (if the ensemble were scrambled and it were Steve Buscemi playing Norman’s part — as opposed to that of his desperate-looking rabbi — no one would give him the time of day). Complete strangers are more likely to warm to someone who looks like Gere, even if Gere has seldom looked less like himself (expect perhaps in last year’s “Time Out of Mind”). Here, Gere appears less confident than usual, with his hair carelessly hand-combed and ears sticking out, his speech patterns rushed and plaintive. Though Norman has the nerve to strike up conversations with total strangers, he typically does so with shoulders hunched and head bowed, coming across with more deference than confidence. He serves the vital social role of “fixer,” offering to do for others what they wouldn’t dare do for themselves (like pull strings to get a kid into Harvard, for example).
Cedar wants to know what makes someone like Norman tick — and how much of the persona he projects is actually true: Was he ever really married? Did his wife really die? And where does he live anyway? He may have the Israeli prime minister’s private number saved in his cell phone, but apart from his nephew (Michael Sheen), it’s doubtful that many of Norman’s “friends” would bother to show up for his funeral. It’s one thing to boast about one’s Rolodex, but quite another to actually deliver, and it’s probably a good thing that most people turn him down when Norman offers to introduce them to one of his important contacts.
But he does have one powerful advantage: Plotting a shady financial scheme that involves flipping Israel’s debt, Norman chats up and eventually wins over low-ranking deputy minister Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi) with the gift of a thousand-dollar pair of shoes, only to find that he’s picked “the right horse” when Eshel gets elected prime minister of Israel a few years later. Suddenly, he has a direct line to someone with real power — although Cedar orchestrates their reunion in such a way that neither Norman nor the film’s audience expects Eshel to remember him, resulting in the film’s single most suspenseful moment. When Eshel responds with genuine affection, embracing Norman before a room full of politically engaged Jews, this well-connected nobody is instantly elevated to the role of the “court Jew” — the adviser/lender to someone in power whose own station rose in tandem, only to be forced to fall on his sword when the jealousy became too much.
Fascinated by this recurring archetype throughout history (and literature, for it also applies to such controversial characters as Shakespeare’s Shylock and Dickens’ Fagin), Cedar actually conceived “Norman” as a contemporary examination of the “court Jew” phenomenon, subtracting the anti-Semitic factors that shape such figures’ standard trajectories (modest rise, tragic fall) by setting it within the largely Jewish realm of American-Israeli relations. Once Eshel’s career takes off, Norman swiftly finds himself in over his head. As someone who plans his schemes on cocktail napkins, Norman is not at all suited for international politics, though that doesn’t stop him from calling the prime minister on a near-daily basis (Cedar depicts those calls and others in clever split-screens), only to be blocked by the PM’s aides, whose job consists largely of shielding their boss from “the Normans” of the world — and there are others, as Hank Azaria’s hovering opportunist soon proves.
Whereas people tended to see through his bluster before, Norman now has credibility, name-dropping Eschel as he spins a bogus Ivory Coast investment deal with any who will listen. But running his mouth has consequences as well, as he discovers far too late after chatting up an embassy official (Charlotte Gainsbourg) on the train back from D.C. What Norman thinks of as favors can look an awful lot like corruption and bribes to someone else, and before long, he’s smack in the middle of an international political scandal, as gnarled and back-stabbing as anything on “House of Cards.” Speaking of, it can take a TV series an entire season to establish a political intrigue as elaborate as the one Cedar devises here — and even longer to flesh out such a fascinating protagonist, when all Cedar had to do was give this archetype a name.