Movie Review: ‘NORMAN’ – Meshuggah Mensch Looks For A Mitzvah

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

NORMAN
Rated R, 1 hour and 57 minutes
Directed by: Joseph Cedar
Starring: Richard GereLior AshkenaziMichael Sheen, Dan Stevens, Steve BuscemiCharlotte Gainsbourg

When you hear the name Norman, you think: sweet, lovable, septuagenarian mensch, whose misguided quirks outweigh his delightful missteps. You’re actually not that far off with the titular character at the heart of director Joseph Cedar’s NORMAN – formerly titled NORMAN: THE MODERATE RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF A NEW YORK FIXER. While there’s something deeply fascinating about the psychology of those in this tale, Cedar gives us one of the more frustrating characters to try to understand in quite some time.

Noah Oppenheimer (Richard Gere) is, as the title suggests, a New York City fixer – a career hustler whose connections bring people together. He takes pride in being the middleman in business transactions even when nothing substantial ever materializes from all the wheeling and dealing. He hasn’t had a successful deal in quite some time. He’s an elusive persona as everybody knows him, but nobody really knows him. He knows no boundaries. He’ll harass anybody at any time, getting up in their personal space just to make a spark of a connection. Desperation fuels him. After all, Norman just wants to be wanted. One of those people he sets his radar on is the deputy minister of Israel, Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi). Norman takes a huge risk and buys his new pal thousand dollar designer shoes on a promise that Micha be his guest at a dinner party. However, when Micha doesn’t show, Norman’s ego takes a slight hit, and so begins a series of highs and lows in the pair’s one-sided friendship. Norman’s lowest point is a shenanigan-laden giant pickle involving Micha, who’s now prime minister, Norman’s nephew Philip (Michael Sheen), Rabbi Blumenthal (Steve Buscemi), government agent Alex (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and mogul Jo (Harris Yulin) and his assistant Bill (Dan Stevens). Oy vey!

Richard Gere and Lior Ashkenazi in NORMAN. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

I get that personalities like Norman really do exist in this world. They’re obtrusive, overbearing and pushy, but they mean well. On the other side of the coin, people like Micha also exist. They are selfish, feeding off and exploiting others’ good will and kind gestures. Yet therein lies this film’s biggest problem: I don’t want to be around people like this for more than I can help it. Both types of people make me filled with stress. And I certainly wouldn’t go out of my way to see them authentically portrayed either – no matter how good Gere is (and he is pretty darn great). Blessedly, this is a brisk dip in Norman’s exhausting world, clocking in at 118 minutes.

We’re told that nobody knows who Norman really is; he speaks of a wife we never see. We doubt she even exists. It seems like he just likes the sound the phrase makes, rolling off his tongue – like that episode of SEINFELD (“My wife has an inner ear infection”). We never see his home. He’s always in transit. He eats in the synagogue kitchen. He’s a rolling stone! And since we never get a good grasp on him, it’s difficult to find genuine connection to his vulnerabilities. He’s a tragic character, but one who’s totally complicit at unwittingly causing his own downfall. So then, can you really blame those who leech off his giving nature?

Jun Miyake’s plucky, gumption-fueled score complements our hero’s journey, helping to fill in a few blanks Cedar’s script curiously leaves empty. But there’s only so much heavy-lifting it can do to bring us deeper insight. NORMAN will assuredly stoke some philosophical discussions as to the right and wrong ways the titular character, and those he chooses to help, handle their circumstances. Nevertheless, this isn’t exactly the deal you entered into when buying your ticket.

Grade: C-

NORMAN opens in limited release on April 14.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.