Richard Gere Shines as a Shadowy Fixer in “Norman”

By Noah Gittell

Last month, the Hollywood Reporter ran a profile on actor Richard Gere explaining why the star doesn’t appear in any big Hollywood movies these days. Turns out it is the closest thing we have seen to a modern-day blacklist. The studios are as reliant as ever on box office from China, whose censorship boards refuse to approve films starring the actor who once drew so much attention to their occupation of Tibet. For those too young to remember, Gere was an outspoken critic of China in the 1990s. He became a Buddhist, railed against China in an off-script Academy Awards speech, and even made a film, 1997’s “Red Corner”, that exposed the country’s crimes against journalists.

For fans of independent film, however, the ban is a blessing in disguise. I wouldn’t want to see an actor of Gere’s caliber wasted as a Marvel villain or aging Jedi, anyway. I’d much rather see him in 2014’s “Time out of Mind,” in which he played a New York homeless man, or the just-released “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.” Gere gives a remarkably complex performance in a film that is a little too ambitious for its own good. “Norman” isn’t great, but it’s bad in interesting ways, and Gere’s grounded performance of a visibly eccentric character keeps the film watchable.

With his ears pushed out and hair brushed down, Gere transforms himself into what we in the Jewish community call a nebbish. But he’s a nebbish with chutzpah. He spends his days trying to put together vaguely defined deals that rely on him charming high-powered businessmen and politicians into deals that only work if a variety of other players also buy in. Norman finagles his way into the lives of very important people – like the deputy prime minister of Israel – and makes promises he cannot keep, hoping that he can keep all his balls in the air through sheer confidence alone.

Sometimes it doesn’t work. There is a heartbreaking scene in which he gets kicked out of a private party at a hedge fund manager’s home. The usually garrulous Norman goes silent at the humiliation, retreating into himself in a way the Gere of yesteryear would never have done. But when he meets and charms an Israeli government official (Lior Ashkenazi) in Manhattan, it appears that his scattershot approach to business may pay off. Three years later, that official has become the Prime Minister of Israel, and Norman worms his way back into his life, hoping to parlay his connections into raising money to save his local synagogue and perhaps get a little something for his troubles. Still, it’s never about the money for Norman. He harbors an innate desire to be accepted by high society and finally be the man of his word that he always claims to be.

It’s a perfect role for the actor who has, in recent years, specialized in playing smooth-talking con artists trying to hold it together as the walls close in. As a man peddling a fake biography of Howard Hughes in “The Hoax” and a tragedy-afflicted Wall Street trader in “Arbitrage”, Gere effortlessly exudes the pathos of men whose charm only gets them so far. With Norman, he digs deeper to uncover the deep insecurity hiding behind his often-sleazy persona. Director Joseph Cedar films Gere – and everyone else – in uncomfortably tight close-ups, and often edges him into the frame, like an outside intruding on someone else’s story. It creates a tantalizing dynamic in which we are charmed by Norman in spite of our discomfort, much like the supporting characters in the film.

For the first hour, in which we slowly piece together the contradictions of the character’s existence, “Norman” is riveting. Yet I’m not sure I can recall a film that went further off the rails in the second half. At its midway point, the Prime Minister delivers a monologue about his personal belief in compromise and his commitment to create peace in the Middle East. It feels wildly out of place and hints at the thematic turmoil that defines the film’s second half.

How to explain this dramatic shift? One reason could be that “Norman” was made by an Israeli director with money from the Israel Film Fund. Politics aside, it’s clear that there was pressure on the filmmaker – either from within or without – to make “Norman” about more than just a man. This misguided attempt at polemic results in a viewing experience that perfectly mirrors the contours of its character: watching “Norman”, you will experience a moderate rise and a tragic fall.

My Rating: <Put it on Your Queue>