Richard Gere is Marvelous as Norman ‘The New York Fixer’

May. 2, 2017
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Norman Oppenheimer wants to make a deal. Better yet, he wants to help you make a deal—any deal he can conceive, regardless of how far-fetched, as he connects the dots in his mind between powerful people. In Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, Richard Gere plays Oppenheimer the macher, a matchmaker not of marriages but of business alliances. Oppenheimer’s problem is that his sense of importance exceeds reality in this funny-sad, eventually bittersweet tale.

 Written and directed by Joseph Cedar, a New York-born Israeli filmmaker, Norman is on one level a send-up of certain tendencies in Jewish-American life, especially in relation to the gravitational pull of Israel. Gere is marvelous as Oppenheimer, a man always calculating the angles, inserting his foot into every door and his nose into everyone’s business. Oppenheimer answers insurmountable obstacles with a dismissive wave of his hand. Through tireless chutzpah, he occasionally makes a deal, albeit they usually don’t work out as planned.

 In a bid to arrange a meeting between a New York financier and Israel’s visiting deputy trade minister, Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), Oppenheimer stalks the Israeli through Manhattan streets, follows him into an expensive men’s shop and strikes up a conversation with his usual air of a man about to take a friend into his confidence. “Let me buy you the shoes,” Oppenheimer insists as Eshel tries on a handsome pair. “It will be my privilege to buy you the shoes. Before you say no, put your feet in them.”

 As is sometimes the case, Oppenheimer wins by sheer persistence, convincing the reluctant politician to accept the gift and arching his brow almost imperceptibly when presented with a bill for $1,192 and change. The investment pays off—sort of—when Eshel returns to New York three years later wearing those shoes. He’s now Israel’s prime minister and, attending a reception in his honor with the city’s Jewish leaders, warmly embraces Oppenheimer in the receiving line. Eshel even blurts out something about making the macher “my honorary ambassador to New York Jewry.” Oppenheimer eagerly mistakes the hyperbole for a genuine portfolio, only to be swept up in a bribery scandal that threatens to topple Eshel’s government.

 Norman is an emotionally complicated story. Eshel is genuinely fond of his footwear benefactor but has little time for him except to ask a favor: gain his son, a boy with low grades, admission to Harvard. Pulling half-a-dozen strings, Oppenheimer manages that feat even though the favor won’t prevent the prime minister’s staff from proposing the macher as the fall guy for the scandal.

 Cedar assembled an impressive supporting cast headed by Charlotte Gainsbourg as an Israeli official investigating the bribery charges. Steve Buscemi plays Oppenheimer’s rabbi, who counts on the macher to raise millions of dollars to save the synagogue from foreclosure. Oppenheimer is eventually stalked by his emotional doppelganger, an almost spectral schmoozer called Katz, played by a shambolic Hank Azaria.

 But most of all, the movie belongs to Gere, who makes us see that Oppenheimer’s endless schmoozing comes from a misguided urge to be helpful and make everything work out even when it probably won’t. Like a holy fool he derives no material benefit from his quest and lives on pickled herring and Ritz crackers. With white buds plugged into both ears and a cellphone always at hand, every corner on the wintry New York streets becomes his office. He’s got everyone’s number but few will answer his calls. His delusions are transparent to most everyone except himself.

Norman opens May 5 at the Oriental Theatre.

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