Joseph Cedar’s English-language debut is an interesting but flawed character study of the eponymous ‘New York fixer’ Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere). The substance of Norman’s occupation is intentionally vague. He chats, schmoozes, charms, and attempts to make connections; all in the interest of his company ‘Oppenheimer Strategies’. After attending a conference on oil revenues, he follows and introduces himself to one of the speakers, a young Israeli politician, Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi).
His meeting with Eshel is the film’s best moment. The camera is behind a shop window, looking out at Norman and Eshel on the street. In the foreground is a pair of shoes. Norman introduces himself, but we cannot hear him; only the soundtrack plays. After chatting amiably, Norman purchases the shoes for Eshel, an apparent act of kindness which he subsequently describes as “the best investment I ever made.” And he is probably right. Three years after their meeting, Eshel becomes the Prime Minister of Israel, and after reuniting with him, Norman finally has some influence to peddle. His ‘moderate rise’ is achieved.
The performances are lovely, Gere’s in particular. His character is not one with whom you have immediate sympathy. He ingratiates himself relentlessly in order to win influence, and he slips into mendacity almost as soon as he starts speaking. Despite these traits, I liked Norman. He has a pluckiness of spirit that is hard to negate; his cheerful eyes and nervous smile keep him from appearing too cynical. Great support comes from Michael Sheen and Charlotte Gainsbourg as lawyers of Norman’s acquaintance. But especially great is Steve Buscemi as the reassuring and kindly Rabbi Blumenthal, whose early conversations with Norman are full of a quiet admiration that is sincerely touching.
Unfortunately, Norman declines in quality over the second half. The story takes on a level of seriousness that obliterates the charming whimsy of the first half. The tonal change is made all the more jarring by the fact that the music remains unaltered. The playfulness of the score is inappropriate when the story grows heavy with portent. Additionally, there are uses of visual tricks that do nothing but distract from the drama, and are antithetical to the tone. After Norman’s second meeting with Eshel, the talking faces of his high-ranking contacts form individually out of flickerings of streetlight. When Norman is on the phone, a split-screen effect is deployed to no good use.
That the tone shifts uncomfortably and the last act becomes portentous is a considerable shame, as it is simply pleasurable watching Norman scheme and win us over with his optimistic fantasies. Gainsbourg’s character at one point asks him: “Why do I get the feeling that nothing you tell me is real?” Her scepticism is justified; but there is (in the beginning) fun to be had in watching Norman try to sculpt reality out of reverie.