by David Lamble
In the complicated but enjoyable new comedy-drama Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, a small-time financial schemer (Richard Gere, exuding chutzpah) befriends a struggling Israeli politician by gifting him a $1,200 pair of shoes. When the pol becomes Prime Minister, Norman enjoys a brief moment in the sun before his inevitable crash to earth.
Oscar-nominated director Joseph Cedar, whose 2011 Israeli father-son rivalry piece Footnote neatly plowed similar comic soil, is adept at crafting characters who in less skilled hands might feel stereotypical. The filmmaker also aces the trick of casting against type. Here, Italian-American character actor Steve Buscemi feels perfectly at home as the raging chief rabbi of a NYC congregation whose future Norman's shenanigans put at risk. If Norman has a flaw, it's in its complicated plot, which feels like the pilot for an HBO miniseries. But as played by one-time matinee idol Gere, Norman delivers laughs and an apt message for the morally slippery Trump era. While the audience may wince at Norman's more audacious schemes in this comedy of humiliation, the targets of his scams are pathetically grateful to be given a kind of free lottery ticket that later proves no more than an expensive booby prize.
There's not much in the way of a romantic subplot, although Norman's train-station encounter with the lovely Alex Green (Charlotte Gainsbourg) does provide an amusing interlude, which pays off in a scene where Alex spots Norman pretending to be somewhere he's not. Norman's ability to cover his tracks via digital technology provides another reason for counting Cedar's comedy among the potential hits of a still young film season.
One of the unexpected delights of Norman is the American debut of the resourceful Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi as Micha Eshel, a politician hungry for higher office. The recipient of the shoes (itself a very wry moment), Eshel is the only one of Norman's "clients" who feels not only indebted to, but really quite grateful to have crossed his path.
Devotees of the CBS drama The Good Wife will enjoy seeing where Josh Charles disappeared to. Charles' longtime fans will recall him as the gay roommate/French film buff in the 1993 comedy-drama Threesome. But Charles is such a strong screen presence that his cameo turn in Norman may seem more a tease than a fully fleshed character. If Charles played Norman, you'd have a very different movie.
One of the gifts that a densely plotted comedy can offer is a glimpse at how other folks live that is neither condescending nor incomprehensible. In my case, exposure to the big-screen treatment afforded the novels of Canadian-Jewish author Mordecai Richler (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz) was a plunge into the rigors of "Jewish anti-Semitism." Richler created protagonists who pushed so hard to escape Montreal's St. Urban Street ghetto that the undiscerning might regard them as offensive rather than the latter-day Dickensian strivers I found them to be. I'm glad to proclaim that Gere's Norman Oppenheimer is fit to join their company as a flawed but engaging mensch. (Opens Friday.)