Norman (Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer); 120 minutes; Rated R

 

“Norman” is a sweet, nuanced character study of an aging wannabe New York hustler. As wonderfully portrayed by Richard Gere, who deftly avoids creating a caricature, Norman is a wispy, nebulous man, nicely dressed in a camel hair coat and scarf, a spiffy hat and rimless glasses, always in the hunt for a deal, ever hoping to broker a connection or possibility, chatting people up to the point of being uncomfortably intrusive.

He is so focused on his deal that he is oblivious to the wary, even annoyed vibes he creates as he inserts himself into the lives of those looking for something concrete. So intent is Norman that he flirts with becoming a stalker while selling his latest scheme or proposal and no matter how humiliating the encounter, or abrasive his mark, Norman always promises to call back.

He possesses no real personal story, except for his lawyer nephew (Michael Sheen) who he also hustles and who kindly keeps Norman at arm’s length. He says at one point, “You’re like a drowning man waving at an ocean liner.” Norman responds, “But I’m a good swimmer.”

Norman has been waving all of his adult life in the hunt for that one deal. And then it happens: He meets and schmoozes an Israeli oil and gas minister (Lior Ashkenazi), in New York on business, and buys him, improbably, a pair of shoes, very expensive shoes. Three years later, when this low-level minister becomes prime minister of Israel, it turns out he hasn’t forgotten Norman’s generous gesture.

And suddenly the world opens for Norman and people begin returning his calls and seeking him out. The world is now his dream fulfilled, and this good-hearted man, who is often deeply lonely, who only wants to make contact with people more than he wants to make money, is sought out.

"Norman" is vague, mystifying, to the point that this delightful film, filled with comedic nuggets, begins to feel like a fable. While the world around him sees substantial, abrupt, even mean-spirited, Norman’s world is something else entirely.

Unfortunately, his connection to the prime minister, a dream come true, morphs into a nightmare, and his elaborate, interconnected strategies take on a tinge of illegality.

Films that are character studies can be endlessly fascinating. And Norman is sufficiently enigmatic to sustain a certain charming allure. He is an underachiever who is deeply kind, despite all of his kvetching and cajoling. Much of it done on his cellphone.

In any other film, Norman would be a minor character. An uncle, perhaps, to the lead actor. Thankfully, Joseph Cedar, writer and director, saw something in this man that could be explored, a person of immense contradictions, meddlesome to a fault, but always ruled by good instincts, no matter how far the truth is stretched.

This is perhaps one of Gere’s finest performances and signals that at 66 he can slip into a role such as this with little hesitation. He’s perfect. As well, he is surrounded by a superb cast and given a fine script.