You have to be pretty confident in the quality of your film to give the ending away in the subtitle. Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer is a descriptive title: it signals a tragic ending, and that the filmmakers are confident enough that that you’ll see it even if you already know that much. Given Norman’s strengths, it’s not a bad bet.
To fill in the parts of the story that aren’t laid out in the title, Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere) is a fixer/doer/connector. Or at least he wants to be. For all of Norman’s plans and strategies, there’s no evidence that he’s any more successful that your friend’s boyfriend who “knows a guy” or “is about to get in on the ground floor” of a thing. In fact, based on the skepticism with which Norman is treated by his nephew (Michael Sheen) and rabbi (Steve Buscemi), it seems likely Norman has failed far more often than he’s succeeded. But then Norman targets the right small-time Israeli politician. He stumbles upon a long-game by sucking up to a guy who fails him in the moment, but within a couple of years, becomes a Prime Minister who knows the name of Norman Oppenheimer. As is his way, Norman moves to leverage the relationship, and he finds himself at a new level of wheeling and dealing.
Aside from being good for the story, it’s not entirely clear why Norman is doing all of this. He’s not in obvious need of money, and frankly he seems equally happy/unhappy whether he’s struggling, or at his peak as a mover and shaker. Aside from his nephew, we see none of Norman’s family. We also don’t see his home. Or, for that matter, any of his clothes that aren’t a suit, tie, or tan wool coat. We know very, very little about Norman, which is what makes Gere’s superb performance so important. With no exposition to fall back on, everything we know about Norman has to be communicated through Gere’s face, voice, and mannerisms, as well as through the interactions he has with other characters.
That focus on relationships works so well because the actors playing those other characters are also very good. Lior Ashkenazi in particular does an excellent job of playing the conflicted Prime Minister who wants to be a good, principled guy but doesn’t actually want to have to do the stuff that makes you a good, principled guy. And as Alex, a woman Norman “meets” by harassing her on a train, Charlotte Gainsbourg turns in a nuanced performance despite initially seeming like part of a storyline that could have ended up on the cutting room floor.
Norman is purposely theatrical in its style, making the strong cast even more essential. Aside from some interesting filming and editing choices, there are no flashy effects, sets, or costumes. The story is divided into four distinct acts, and the tragedy is Shakespearean in nature – the different characters and motivations all coming together in a rising tension to reach a tragic but inevitable denouement. Writer and director Joseph Cedar steals a bit from Chekhov’s playbook as well: there’s only one metaphorical rifle on the wall, but several pieces of Norman that seem extraneous while you’re sitting through them do eventually pay off in the end.
It takes a while to get to the satisfying ending of Norman, and the film – again, like many plays – could have been a bit leaner and still packed a punch. But Cedar is doing some interesting work within the confines of the structure he’s laid out, and seeing the story come together at the end makes all that time spent watching close shots of people talking to each other seem like a more worthy investment. Despite knowing that Norman is going down, a talented cast and well-constructed story make his “tragic fall” compelling to watch.