Richard Gere in Norman (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)

NORMAN
*** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Joseph Cedar
STARS Richard Gere, Michael Sheen

Subtitled The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York FixerNorman finds Richard Gere delivering one of the finest performances of his lengthy career. He stars as Norman Oppenheimer, a self-professed businessman. And if you’re wondering what “businessman” exactly entails in his case, you’re not alone – another character asks that same question, hoping for clarity. Norman is a wheeler-dealer, a con man, an opportunist, a strategist, an advisor – take your pick. He’s a small fish in a big pond, always trying to score important connections with politicos, financiers and other influential people. He finally strikes gold when he does a favor for rising Jewish politician Micha Eschel (Lior Ashkenazi, excellent), who three years later becomes the Israeli Prime Minister and doesn’t forget his friend Norman.

Written and directed by Joseph Cedar, Norman centers on a man who, by all logic, should be too insufferable and impossible to follow. Yet thanks to Cedar’s writing and Gere’s emoting, Norman Oppenheimer is instead a figure worthy of attention and sympathy. True, he makes his own bed and then has to sleep in the soiled sheets – after all, it’s his insistence on exaggerating his power and his relationships that lead to (as the subtitle notes) his downfall. But who doesn’t want to feel important, or feel as if they’ve made some positive contribution to society? One of Norman’s problems is that he cares too much, and it’s difficult to dislike and dismiss someone like that. Gere nails his character’s braggadocio but also his insecurities, and he’s backed by a terrific supporting roster that includes Michael Sheen as his concerned nephew and Steve Buscemi as a rabbi who’s not above letting loose with the occasional string of profanities.

If only the final act were as strong as the rest of this unique picture. Instead, in an ill-advised effort to not only neatly tie together all the plot threads but also lend the piece an air of (there’s that subtitle again) tragic destiny, Norman abandons credibility for convenience. It’s an unfortunate denouement, though it’s hardly a debilitating one.

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