Norman: Just Keep Swimming, by David Bax
Norman, Joseph Cedar’s first English language film after turning heads with 2011’s Footnote, is simultaneously of the moment and somehow outside of time itself. Taking place over the course of years—but somehow in perpetual New York City winter—it describes a global financial and political state with no borders, where vague but critical deals are conducted via cellular phone from sidewalks, lobbies and Starbucks bathrooms or by “happenstance” run-ins on trains, at synagogues and in pricey men’s clothing stores. At the center of this story, Cedar gives us Norman (Richard Gere), a nobody and a major player, a relic and a man who can see the future. Norman is lively, funny and bursting with fantastically realized plot and character intricacies but its main narrative thrust can be boiled down to its subtitle, The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.
Norman is constantly trying to make connections. What he does for a living is not clear, exactly, but it seems to mainly concern developing a roster of highly placed contacts who can use him as a conduit by which to trade favors, tips and money. When Norman wants to get close to a major investment banker, for instance, and discovers that he used to go to temple with the father of the banker’s second in command, he is sure to bring that up when he “runs into” the younger man on a morning jog. One day, Norman makes it his business to make the acquaintance of a visiting Israeli politician, the deputy to the deputy of some governmental agency or other. He schmoozes the man and buys him a pair of shoes. Then, in the next act (the film is divided into acts), years have passed and that man has just been elected Prime Minister of Israel. Norman, for the price of a pair of shoes, has made himself a very influential person. Cedar, who also wrote the screenplay, doesn’t require the audience to fully grasp the particulars of every deal that goes down in Norman but he uses broad strokes like the shoes to make sure we understand what we need to.
Cedar has assembled a rock solid cast. Gere is at his best here as a man of confidence but also possessed of a sad self-awareness in regards to his low status and a resilience to being treated like a schmuck, which he is not even though others may be forgiven for seeing him that way. As Micha Eshel, the prime minister, the stellar Lior Ashkenazi is just as magnetic as he was in Footnote, though he’s traded that character’s professorial shabbiness for the well-appointed, well-tailored sheen of a career politician. The rest of the cast includes Michael Sheen as Norman’s lawyer nephew, Charlotte Gainsbourg as an Israeli investigator, Harris Yulin as the aforementioned banker, Dan Stevens as the aforementioned second in command, Steve Buscemi as Norman’s rabbi, Josh Charles as a rival to Yulin’s character, Isaach De Bankolé as a salesman, a small but intriguingly cryptic turn from Hank Azaria and a noteworthy performance from Neta Riskin, a newcomer to American theaters, as one of Eshel’s advisors.
As with Footnote, Cedar employs nearly wall to wall music, this time from the Japanese composer Jun Miyake, whose emotive orchestral pieces—sometimes jaunty, sometimes ominous—match the propulsive pace of the editing by Brian A. Kates. Together, Miyake and Kates allow the sprawling film to flit neatly and seamlessly from scene to scene, aided by Cedar’s occasionally flashy touches, like the invisible split screens that make characters in different parts of the city or the world appear to be occupying the same space.
Norman is a story about chance and fortune. When good luck strikes, Norman has put himself in the position to maximize the advantages he can take while also maintaining the clarity to not let himself believe it will last. It doesn’t, as that subtitle makes clear, and when bad luck strikes back, Norman handles it with the same maturity and aplomb. Gere transmits all of this without static or hesitation.
Pointedly, we never see Norman at home. Like a shark, he’s always on the move but he’s no predator. He’s more of a chameleon, ready to adapt to whatever he encounters next. Eshel, who is much the same until he isn’t, puts his philosophy into words. “The opposite of compromise,” he says, “is fanaticism and death.” For all its joy and laughs, Norman will be most memorable for its final strokes, which put that doctrine to the test.