Richard Gere casts aside his trademark leading man good looks and charm and gives what may be one of the best performances of his career as Norman Oppenheimer, the title role in Israeli writer/director Joseph Cedar’s (Footnote, Beaufort) English language debut.
Norman is a New York Jewish hustler or fixer, with absolutely nothing of the gigolo about him. He trudges around Manhattan, dressed in a camel coloured coat and tweed cap, speaking through his iPhone headphones, constantly trying to “connect” people. He is a persistent, thick-skinned wheeler-dealer but to many, he is an irritant. He is, he says, “just here to help.” He appears to be on the periphery of those with power and influence - apparently everyone is a close friend - and he aspires to gain the acceptance of this elite with the continual promise of a deal. As he tries to pull off yet another introduction, his nephew (Michael Sheen) describes him as a “drowning man trying to wave at an ocean liner.” Norman assures him that he’s a good swimmer.
Norman sets his sights on Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), a low level, suave and charismatic Israeli politician, who is on a trip to New York. In a well-choreographed sequence, Norman befriends him and succeeds in convincing him to receive an expensive gift. Three years pass and Eshel has, unexpectedly, becomes the Israeli prime minister. “For once,” Norman says, “I bet on the right horse.” When the two men meet again, Norman is greeted warmly and the renewed connection seems to benefit them both until a scandal appears, which threatens Eshel’s political career.
Gere is utterly compelling as the complex and flawed Norman. We are not sure what to believe and his private life remains a mystery. Indeed, is everything about him a con? As the pressure mounts he begins to looks disheveled and a touch of manic desperation grips him as realises that he is in too deep. Yet for all his deceptions and shallow cravings for respect and influence, there is an enigmatic likeability it is difficult not to feel some empathy and compassion.
Ashkenazi wears his vanity well as the highly credible Eshel. His rise from disenchanted politician to a surprising key player, trying to manouevre a deal to bring about peace in the Middle East is just one example of where Norman blends realism with a wry, comedic touch of the absurd. Cedar’s plot has an uncanny prescience about it.
Cedar’s strength lies in his sharp and astute characterisation and there is also a strong support cast including Steve Buscemi as Norman’s rabbi and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a lawyer. But Norman’s four act structure is too long, the ‘fall’ aspect of the narrative irritatingly signposted and once the political machinations take hold, the plot becomes overly complicated. That said,this is Gere as you have never seen him.
As Norman says, good things come in surprising ways.
Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer is on release from 9 June.