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D: Joseph Cedar / 118m

Cast: Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Michael Sheen, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Dan Stevens, Steve Buscemi, Harris Yulin, Yehuda Almagor, Neta Riskin, Hank Azaria, Scott Shepherd, Josh Charles, Isaach De Bankolé

Norman Oppenheimer (Gere) is an aging, low-level fixer, a facilitator who wants to help people succeed in business, but who doesn’t have the necessary contacts to make things happen or to avoid being looked on with suspicion, or being dismissed out of hand. When he approaches a young investment banker, Bill Kavish (Stevens), with a deal that could make Kavish’s boss, Jo Wilf (Yulin), a fortune, he’s given the brush off. With the deal involving Israeli tax write-offs, Norman turns his attention to rising Israeli politician, Micha Eshel (Ashkenazi), who is in New York for a brief visit. He “bumps into” Eshel outside a men’s clothing store where Eshel is admiring a pair of shoes. Norman buys Eshel the shoes – as a gift – and persuades him to to join Norman at a party he’s going to that night at the home of Wilf’s main rival, Arthur Taub (Charles). But Eshel doesn’t go, and Norman’s plan to get the two men together (and involve Taub in the deal for the Israeli tax write-offs) falls apart.

Three years later, Norman is still committed to helping people achieve great success in their lives, when Eshel returns to New York as the new Israeli Prime Minister. At a reception, Norman and Eshel are reunited, and Eshel welcomes him into his inner circle as a close friend. But any further access becomes difficult, with Eshel’s chief advisor, Duby (Almagor), ensuring Norman’s calls go unanswered. Meanwhile, the synagogue that Norman is affiliated with is threatened with being sold off unless $14 million can be raised to save it. Norman takes it on himself to do so, and when Eshel asks for Norman’s help in getting his son into Harvard, he sees a way of turning the favour into a chance to save the synagogue. But his plan doesn’t work out, and Norman begins to weave a web of lies and half-truths in an effort to keep his relationship with Eshel, and the synagogue, alive in the eyes of everyone around him. But when he talks to a special Israeli investigator (Gainsbourg) on a train, and innocently mentions his connection with Eshel – and those shoes – it puts in motion a series of events that Norman couldn’t have predicted, and which leaves him having to make a decision that will have far-reaching consequences for everyone he’s involved with – and most of all, for Norman himself.

In recent years you could be forgiven for wondering if Richard Gere had given up on Hollywood altogether, and had decided to make only low budget movies for the rest of his career. The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015), his first mainstream movie since Chicago (2002), reminded us that he could still pull off the kind of matinee idol role he essayed so successfully in the Eighties and Nineties, but it was a surprise to see him in something so pleasantly superficial. Now, after several trips to the indie well, Gere has found a role that suits him as the character actor he prefers to be known as, and which offers him the chance to give his best performance in years. As the indefatigably persistent Norman Oppenheimer, Gere the matinee idol is buried beneath a camel hair coat, flat cap, unflattering hairstyle, and dangling ear buds. There are times when Gere doesn’t even look like Gere, so complete is his transformation. He gives a fascinating portrayal of a man whose entire life is predicated around helping others, of arranging meetings between remarkable men while steadfastly remaining in the background.

This does make Joseph Cedar’s follow up to his Oscar-nominated Footnote (2011) (which also starred Ashkenazi) a little difficult to get to grips with at first, as Norman’s self-effacing personality threatens to overwhelm the narrative. He’s a nice guy, but he’s still not someone you’d want hanging around in your life all the time – which is exactly what he would do. And even though Norman’s motives are entirely genuine and full of good intentions, there’s something about his demeanour that keeps the players he tries to associate with from embracing him entirely (the analogy that would best describe him is the one where he’s the kid who’s chosen last by his classmates to be on someone’s team). We also learn very little about Norman, about his life or his beginnings, how he came to be a fixer. We never see him at home either; instead he retreats to the synagogue when he needs to take a break. And he seems to be financially independent as we never see him receive any money from anyone. He’s a mystery to the viewer, and more so to the characters he interacts with, who never quite manage to interpret his actions as anything other than self-serving.

Cedar’s impressively detailed script gains momentum as the story unfolds, with Norman in the midst of a web of his own making and finding himself trapped at its centre. But Norman never gives up, and though the solution he arrives at is detrimental to himself he doesn’t hesitate to do what he must. And everything he does is for someone else’s benefit; and he doesn’t care if people aren’t appreciative. It’s not the point. Cedar surrounds Norman with a cadre of (mostly) unlikeable contacts and movers and shakers and allows them to manipulate Norman for their own ends, while Norman continues being Norman and sticking to his guns. As the movie progresses, it becomes easier and easier to understand him, and to appreciate what he’s doing, even if the why is missing. In many ways, it’s better that Norman’s motivations remain hidden, as it somehow makes the resolution to his story all the more satisfying.

Gere is surrounded by a talented cast, some of whom appear whenever necessary – Gainsbourg, Stevens, Yulin – and some, like Ashkenazi, whose involvement is absolutely essential to the success of Cedar’s movie. The Israeli-born actor gives a terrific performance as a politician whose moral compass is gradually pulled askew in the name of political expediency. Cedar gifts the actor with a tremendous monologue about the nature of compromise, and Ashkenazi delivers it with scathing wit and undeniable rancour. It’s a stand out moment, and shows that Cedar isn’t going to fall back on standard tropes for his characters, even when they’re engaged in somewhat predictable political manoeuvrings. He’s also constructed a screenplay that is humorous and darkly comic, flecked with delicious subtleties that add to the screenplay’s already impressive nature, and which makes much of the dialogue unexpectedly tart and/or subversive. With Cedar also employing a split screen effect that affords an unexpected emotional weight when it’s used, Norman is a movie that is full of surprises, and definitely worth seeking out.

Rating: 8/10 – the kind of intelligent, well thought out, and observant movie that rarely gets the attention it deserves, Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer is quite simply a joy to watch, and very easy to recommend; with Gere on such good form, and Cedar in full control of the various elements that make up his entertaining screenplay, the movie may tread some well-worn paths on it’s way to the end, but this shouldn’t put off anyone from seeing it.