‘Norman’ review: Easily forgotten political farce

Can rugged persistence eventually get you in trouble?

Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere) is insufferable in the worst way; a man who is overwhelmingly nice, but doesn’t take no for an answer, and persists like a toothache. He can’t catch a break, but he also can’t get out of his own way. Norman is a small time operator in New York City looking for work influencing and advising small parties or corporations when he runs into a young ambitious politician named Michal Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi) and they become fast friends.

Years later, when Eshel rises to the top of the Israeli political world, Norman reconnects with him and a relationship blooms for better or worse. Things don’t end well, but when the tagline reads, “The moderate rise and tragic fall of a New York fixer,” what do you expect? I expect Norman’s greatest strength is Gere, who can make any character interesting and injects a valve of interest into the weakest of characters. Norman‘s biggest weakness is the viewer doesn’t care much for Norman, because they barely get to know a thing about him.

For the better part of the two hour running time, he runs around New York following Eshel like a lost puppy looking for a treat or working angles on his Rabbi friend (Steve Buscemi) or weighing heavily on his nephew (Michael Sheen) for help in other deals. While he seems to be jumping into shark infested waters, Norman keeps reminding Sheen’s Philip that “he can swim”. What if the people in the lifeboat don’t care if you can make it to shore?

Writer-director Joseph Cedar has made a handful of foreign language films before tackling this political satire flavored drama, and his efforts will remind you of a half-witted Woody Allen fumbling around a basement. There’s nothing remarkable about his script outside of a fiery rant delivered by Eshel midway and the shots/setup won’t tease the eyes later on after you have left the theater. It isn’t a flaw in filmmaking; Norman simply isn’t interesting enough to hold up a flavor-less plot.

One of my fellow critics made a comment afterward about this being reminiscent of a Curb Your Enthusiasm type script, and that Larry David could have easily played the role that Gere takes on here. If Woody Allen wanted to take batting practice with his pal Larry while making a mild statement about the dog eats dog nature of politics, he would have made Norman.

The supporting cast has some charm and stature, but don’t stay with you after the credits role. Ashkenazi’s portrayal of a good man being wrangled by the system does pipe the interest, but he gets shoehorned to the side, so audiences can follow Gere’s loner around. Hank Azaria has a throwaway role and Buscemi isn’t given much to work with.

This is the kind of film where two things come to mind on how it got made and assembled such a fine cast: Cedar is friends with a few of the cast, or he should only write or direct, but not both. There was a good idea in here, but if the title character isn’t trustworthy when it comes to holding people’s interest, the ship will go down.

A third scenario is producer Oren Moverman playing a role. Today, Moverman’s written/directed effort-The Dinner-comes out with Gere in a much meatier role. Perhaps Gere agreed to do Norman if he was able to sit at Moverman’s table.

While it’s not worth your time or money, Norman may have introduced American audiences to Ashkenazi, an Israeli actor who is charming enough to perhaps carry his own film. He gives this a film a brief glimmer of hope.

No matter how hard Norman persists, just say no.

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