Movie review: 'Norman'

Jeff Reed

It's all about who you know, they say. And moviegoers should get to know “Norman.”

“Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” is a winner about a loser. Through comedy and character, the touching tragedy finds charm in having friends in high places. And it's lowly Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere) who makes the connection.

But that's not always clear to his would-be beneficiaries. Norman's only kinship with the famed physicist with whom he shares a last name is that his hoped-for clients radiate away from him. And yet, the founder, CEO and lone staffer of Oppenheimer Strategies somehow becomes the nucleus in a global controversy that could blow up a politician and the pact pleader himself.

Norman's rise starts with his scheme to financially benefit a gas company. And even though his seemingly hopeless plan is devised on a cocktail napkin, the desperate Norman is not drowning in drinks. To his nephew Philip (Michael Sheen), he's a “drowning man waving at an ocean liner.”

Maybe, but Norman's also a “good swimmer … as long as [his] head is above water.” And it is, long enough to see Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), an Israeli government official, float by. In Eshel, Norman sees his in to Big Oil. And the shoe fits.

Through Eshel, the revolving door of political connections begins to turn: Norman's gas prospect could fuel the finances for his cash-strapped synagogue. His rabbi (Steve Buscemi) could expedite the conversion of his nephew's fiance. His nephew could get Eshel's son in to Harvard.

It's a labyrinth that eventually becomes too big for a napkin and more fitting for a legal pad — and, as Norman discovers, legal troubles as well.

The dramatic thriller is as endearing as its titular character, in whom Gere gives one of his best performances. And much like Michael Keaton's progression from savior “Batman” to senior “Birdman,” “Norman” is almost an allegory on Gere's career, reaching its pinnacle 27 years ago as “Pretty Woman's” New York raider only to “fall” to “New York fixer.”

And he does it masterfully. Gere channels Woody Allen minus the insecurities, making Norman anything but a nebbish.

Director Joseph Cedar exudes similar confidence in crafting a film as complexly connected as Norman's network. His euphoric montage at Norman's height celebrates the joys of knowing that others need you. His split-screen juxtapositions isolate the pains when those same friends only want to be as near as Norman's iPhone earbuds will let them.

But it pays to be close to Norman. Much like its lead character, “Norman” is touching, funny, smart and memorable. Audiences should seek him out.


Opens Friday

5 stars out of 5