The blessings of peace rain down in Joseph Cedar’s Norman, seeded from low clouds of bribery, cronyism, and résumé inflation. The bribe amounts to no more than a pair of men’s shoes (though, to give the corruptor his due, they’re Lanvin); the cronyism, to wishful claims of friendship with the rich and powerful. As for the résumé inflation, it’s a sin the title character can scarcely avoid, surviving as he does on a business card and a cell-phone number.
You’ve met this exhausting type before: the wheedler, the cajoler, the unrelenting hanger-on, overjoyed to have run into you because he swore to your cousin in Baltimore that he would double your money, as soon as you give it to him. The tartness of Norman—subtitled The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer—comes from situating this figure within the segment of American Jewry that would do anything (please, just ask me!) for the State of Israel. The film’s sweetness, and its innovation, comes from perceiving the sincerity of this particular schnorrer, whose desperation to advance himself is inextricably bound up with his desire to serve others. How is the world maintained? Through the good works of scheming nobodies like Norman Oppenheimer.
You hear Norman on the soundtrack before you see him, which seems appropriate for this man of tumbling and unreliable words. His light baritone is pitched for ingratiation but breathlessly insistent; his enunciation rapid but braying, as if mashed potatoes caught beneath his upper lip were keeping him from closing his vowels. You listen to the spiel he’s rehearsing, about a billion-dollar deal, and realize that he wants to arrange it between parties he doesn’t actually know.
Then he pops into view: a bookishly bespectacled Richard Gere bundled up in a cloth cap, camel-hair coat, and muffler, his unbarbered white hair flopping over his right eye, a leather satchel slung awkwardly over his left shoulder. Hope, need, and loneliness are written on his every feature, from the lips that hang open with baffled longing to the little eyes that squint upward in anxious appeal. He is the very image of a “warm Jew” (as someone will soon call him), stuck in the cold place of the movie’s perpetually snowbound Manhattan. When Norman meets with his real contacts, they generally agree to see him on the plazas outside their midtown towers, not inside, and then forget their overcoats, which tends to shorten the conversation. When he accosts prospective contacts during their morning runs in Central Park, they scowl in contempt and flee down the icy paths.
Norman is the story of this merchant of unsought, dubious favors and the one prospect who does not freeze him out: Micha (Lior Ashkenazi), a sleek Israeli official with a sweet tooth and a streak of melancholic self-doubt. Targeted by Norman at a business conference and then pursued through the New York of glass-curtain-wall offices and shop windows—a city ready-made for snooping and stalking—Micha allows the voluble stranger to approach, talk, sidle in, touch his forearm, and finally clutch his shoulder. (Cedar cleverly shoots this action in dumb show, from behind the window at Lanvin, so you needn’t think about Norman’s chances of fooling anyone with his patter; you just see Micha acquiesce.) It’s the most superficial of encounters, after which the two men go back to being isolated in New York: Micha dining at taxpayer expense at a table for one, while Norman appropriates some herring and Ritz crackers from the stock in a synagogue kitchen. But by the evening’s uneventful Chekhovian end, they’re bound by a cell-phone connection and the sound of their tired voices. Micha has recognized that Norman is clingy but well-intentioned—at heart, just a warm Jew. And both men have understood that they’re mirror images: one fretting that he’ll never rise, the other worried that he’s already on his way down.