N.Y.C., Israeli cultures clash in story of ‘Norman’ the fixer

Richard Gere and Lior Ashkenazi star in ‘Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.’ Photo: Niko Tavernise, Sony Pictures Classics

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

In “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer,” Richard Gere stars as Norman Oppenheimer, an aging New York deal-maker, or fixer, who is clearly past whatever glory days he may have had. A chance encounter with a low-level Israeli politician who is in New York for a conference leads to an unexpected turn of luck for Norman.

The film’s subtitle from New York-born Israeli director Joseph Cedar tells audiences something of the arc of this subtly comic movie. Cedar’s previous Israeli comedy, “Footnote,” explored a rivalry between a father and son who are Talmud scholars in Israel. 

In his first English-language film, the writer/director has assembled an impressive cast, including Gere, Michael Sheen, Steve Buscemi and Charlotte Gainsbourg. 

Norman lives by the belief it is not what you know but who you know. Attired in a camel-hair coat, muted plaid scarf and tweed cap that looked dapper in the 1950s, Norman is always working, contacting his list of influential people while walking New York’s streets with his smartphone and earbuds. Repeatedly rebuffed as he makes his rounds of the elite — or at least their assistants — Norman is nonetheless unreasonably optimistic. 

Norman collects influential contacts but, in truth, these powerful people do not know him despite his claims that they are all close friends. Norman fancies himself a fixer, someone who can pull strings to get a good table at a fancy restaurant and more. Actually, he is more a con man, relying on half-truths to set up his deals. His office is his phone, and he seems on the edge of being homeless.

Still, his lawyer nephew Philip Cohen (Sheen) and his rabbi (Buscemi) show affection and tolerance toward him while trying to distance themselves from Norman’s schemes. 

“You’re like a drowning man trying to wave at an ocean liner,” his nephew tells him, referring to Norman’s hope of connecting with the powerful, to which Norman replies:  “But I’m a good swimmer.” 

Norman’s luck seems to change when he meets the Israeli politician, Micha Eshel (Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi). Norman essentially stalks the man, trailing him to an expensive shoe store. 

Eshel is at a low point both in his career and self-confidence and finds a surprising personal connection with Norman, whom he later describes as a “warm Jew.” He is clearly touched by Norman’s extravagant gesture of buying him a pair of expensive shoes. It is partly an investment on Norman’s part, but it is also a gesture of kindness, even pity. 

Eshel does not forget and that goodwill pays off years later when Eshel returns to New York, improbably, as Israel’s new prime minister. 

Feeling important seems to motivate Norman more than money. Norman is someone who wants to be noticed, who craves being accepted by people in power, a trait he shares with Eshel and part of why they bond. Things are looking up for Norman with Eshel’s rise, and Norman uses his new connection to put together a complex deal. 

But while Eshel feels warmly toward Norman, the prime minister’s assistants regard Norman as a parasite and even a threat. 

Under Cedar’s clever direction, the film slyly explores cultural differences between Jews in the diaspora and those in Israel and  offers social commentary on stereotyping. Cedar cast non-Jewish actors for the New York roles, while the Israeli characters are mostly played by Israeli actors.

Much of the dialogue could have been played for broad laughs, but the director instead underscores Norman’s humanity by having Gere deliver the lines in a straightforward fashion. Gere’s striking performance reveals the pain beneath Norman’s think-positive facade. 

The other actors are good as well, particularly Buscemi  and Ashkenazi. 

The humor is subtle in Cedar’s film, and audiences expecting something more obvious might overlook it. Despite its largely American setting, “Norman” feels much more like an Israeli film, one steeped in Israeli humor and social commentary. 

“Norman” has sly smiles and ironies rather than belly laughs, but the film wraps up with a bittersweet twist and surprising humanity. There is a touch of “careful what you wish for” in this tale of a small-time operator who bluffs himself into the big time and finds he is out of his league.d