Poor Richard Gere. Once one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, a few bad movies and a few too many outspoken politics and the guy has essentially been booted from the business. There’s always a chance he’ll get a tiny supporting role in a superhero blockbuster, but until then he’s locked in with Nicolas Cage as the king of barely-released indies that clog up VOD viewing lists. His latest addition to this crap movie pile is ‘Norman’. While Gere is actually quite good here, the movie itself…? Not so much.
Gere stars as (wait for it) Norman. He’s a bit of a bumbling loser, but also one of those bumbling losers with big ideas that he’s always out to sell. Somehow, he becomes convinced that he can help an Israeli politician named Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi) rise to power with the right connection to some big time New York financiers. One $1,000 shoe purchase and an awkward dinner party later, he pulls it off. Flash-forward three years and Eshel is indeed the Prime Minister of Israel. Even better, he remembers Norman and helps him make some new connections. Suddenly Norman is viewed as the ticket for anyone in New York to get hooked up with the Israeli PM. When his local synagogue (run by Steve Buscemi of all people) hits hard times, Norman promises to get financing. He also promises to help one of Eshel’s relatives get into Harvard. Amidst all the wheel-spinning, Norman finds himself in the middle of an international political scandal.
Norman is actually an intriguing character. As established by writer/director Joseph Cedar, we’re never quite sure who he is or why he’s into these power games. He can seem remarkably charming and in-command one minute, then completely lost and insane the next. Gere clearly adores the opportunity to play someone so wildly different from his usual screen persona. He’s a bouncing ball of neurotic energy from the first scene to the last and creates a swell of anxiety with all of his oddball mannerisms. He’s definitely a fascinating protagonist to follow for a while since he’s so unpredictable and well meaning in his lying and scheming. Cedar surrounds Gere with an impressive supporting. Buscemi, Michael Sheen, Dan Stevens and Charlotte Gainsbourg all show up to play with Gere and provide wonderful sparring partners. For a while, the film feels like it’s heading somewhere interesting. Then Cedar’s tricks gets old.
The movie contains some twists and revelations as to whom Norman actually is, but not enough and they aren’t particularly compelling. Cedar admirably allows the character to strain audience empathy by not being conventionally likable or heroic in any way. However, there’s ultimately little to the core of his collection of nervous mannerisms and noble schemes. The hints of his past we get are obvious and empty. There’s little to reward the journey. The big scandal also feels oddly quaint by contemporary political standards, just some shady deals, typically done with dignity.
Cedar directs with grandiose style and big performances as if he’s creating an epic of political intrigue and deceit destined to wow viewers with a sucker punch in the finale. Unfortunately, they feel like distraction tactics and hyper-stylized sequences to cover up the story’s hollow core. By the end, it’s hard not to walk out of the theater confused, disappointed, and little bored.
More than that, there’s something rather icky about the way Cedar constructs a Jewish fable of sorts around scheming characters and ethnic stereotypes. Short of having all the characters meet at a deli, the film piles on Jewish stereotypes to an uncomfortable degree. It feels more than a little culturally insensitive, and the fact that so few of the major cast members are actually Jewish speaks to the fact that there may have been some discomfort when the script went around. It’s not outright offensive per se, just questionable. Toss in a confused and underwhelming narrative and you’ve got a flick that is very hard to recommend, except for Richard Gere. He’s quite good, better than he’s been in a while. What a shame that he can’t seem to get hired in movies even moderately better than ‘Norman’.