Ageing New York fixer Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere) is facing ruin when he charms a visiting Israeli politician (Lior Ashkenazi). Years later, this politician becomes prime minister of his country, opening doors for Norman — but for how long?
Ever wanted to see super-smoothie Richard Gere take on the kind of part Woody Allen would have nailed in his ’80s pomp? Gere’s needy, desperate performance isn’t the only way Allen hangs over this: it’s a morality play that could be a folk tale, and is only a few one-liners away from something Manhattan’s favourite clarinettist would have turned in after Crimes And Misdemeanors.
Gere is superb as Norman Oppenheimer, a dishevelled New Yorker who spends his days yomping around town on his phone, posing as a “strategic consultant” but in reality pestering people until they become part of his network of influence, his only real product introductions. Exploiting the ties between New York’s Jewish community to the point, he stumbles into becoming an unlikely conduit for American Jews wanting to invest in Israel — naturally, this surprise success only creates new problems.
The straightforward rise-and-fall narrative the subtitle playfully flags actually drips with some pretty strong sauce: Israeli-American director Joseph Cedar gives Gere’s character the surname of the main character in Jud Süss, a film anti-Semitic even for the Nazis. There’s clearly been an effort to cast non-Jewish actors as American Jews, but Israelis play the Israeli characters. A lot of the language of anti-Semitism is played on, too: the word ‘scheming’ comes up more than once, and some Jewish stereotypes are addressed head-on.
Gere gets more action with his business-card case than most war movies have with rifles.
What’s this adding up to? In truth, it’s not immediately clear — there are historical nuances that wouldn’t be obvious to audiences not attuned to the cultural history of Jewish stereotypes. Norman is a clever play on anti-Semitic slanders of Jews as manipulative and ingratiating that date back to the shtetls and further — these are undermined, of course, but it’s interesting to speculate on how much flak a non-Israeli director would have got for swimming in these dangerous waters.
Luckily, there are plenty of other pleasures beyond just decoding these riffs. Gere is superb, maintaining a quiet late-career renaissance, and a strong supporting cast includes Charlotte Gainsbourg, Dan Stevens, Steve Buscemi, Michael Sheen and top-notch it’s-that-guy Harris Yulin. Cedar sure has an eye for a telling detail, giving Gere more action with his business-card case than most war movies have with rifles, and he finds so many interesting ways to shoot phone conversations, O2 should hire him. Overall, though, Norman is an example of that increasingly rare thing: an adult-orientated drama without shock material, dripping with warmth and surprise turns.
Sophisticated, classy and well-acted, this is proof positive that smart storytelling can still be found outside the box set.