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Francesca De Luca
Norman Oppenheimer is the President of New York based Oppenheimer Strategies. His word-of-mouth business is consulting work largely in American-Israeli business and politics, that focus due to being Jewish. Most of that work is as a fixer: doing work that others don't want to do and with which they don't want to be officially associated. In reality, Norman is a shyster, and not a very good one at that. His office is comprised of his cell phone and whatever is stuffed in his satchel which is usually slung over his shoulder as he wanders the streets. What he promises is making connections, setting up a meeting between his guy and the other guy. Generally, "his guy" is non-existent, he dropping names of people he usually doesn't know to make connections. A usual tactic he uses is to say that his deceased wife was personally connected to so-and-so, such as being a babysitter, those stories always untrue. All he needs is for one of the people that he approaches to believe a story to build ... Written by
Best post-matinée idol role & performance by Richard Gere
When I see the term "The Fixer" I recall Alan Bates in the now-forgotten Frankenheimer film from the Bernard Malamud novel of that name. A more definitive portrait is limned by Richard Gere as an archetypal (or stereotypical) Jewish character in Joe Cedar's "Norman", a performance that is near-perfect and marks the full transition of Gere from his pretty-boy stardom of decades ago to great character actor.
Casting gentiles in most of the major Jewish roles in this film should not be controversial, as certainly all recent Mafia epics have cast Brits, Irish and Australian actors in the Italian parts for the obvious reason that Italian actors, even De Niro, are tired of the ethnic gangster stereotype unless it's a comedy or spoof. Gere creates a memorable and unique character that avoids the obvious clichés.
Just as in "Pretty Woman" he so ably played second-fiddle to his co-star Julia Roberts (in the role that made her a star) here Gere is actually overshadowed in the charisma department by his amazing Israeli co-star Lior Ashkenazi as Eshel, a minor Israeli politician befriended (for purely self-serving reasons) by Gere as Norman Oppenheinmer, Eshel later becoming his country's powerful prime minister.
Norman is a finagler (I couldn't place the proper Yiddish word to describe him), with a compulsion to inveigle his way into people's good graces usually in the manner of a "cold call" handled in person, in order to make them beholden to him for future payoff. It's analogous to the premise behind Puzo's "The Godfather", in which Don Corleone does favors that ultimately will be paid back when the time is propitious, and is best described in the film's wonderful hand-drawn charts which Kevin Bacon-like link people together in complicated diagrams. Besides its obvious content, the film works on a different level to show the negative side of our era's current craze for "networking", a practice that has been enshrined as the cure-all for unemployment (or underemployment) at a certain level of society but which in this case involves extreme, insidious manipulation.
Starting with buying the visiting Eshel an expensive pair of shoes as the Israeli visits New York City on government business (Isaach De Bankole as the shoe salesman is the first of numerous terrific small- role performances by instantly recognizable actors who usually have leading parts in movies), Norman compulsively fabricates far-fetched stories of his linkage to everybody while creating tenuous links in order to concoct complicated schemes, which he calls "Strategies" on his business card.
He's a mysterious figure, always clad in his camel's hair overcoat and seemingly homeless as we never see him except in public places, usually on the phone via earphones pestering folks. On the surface he is a bore -the type one meets at a cocktail party or in the next seat on a plane and makes one wish to escape from his barrage of intrusive blather.
But writer-director Cedar not only humanizes Norman but by the end of the film makes us see the good that results from his weird projects, even though Norman himself faces a tragic fate. A stumbling block for me to get into the picture was Cedar's rather forced and overly fanciful use of tropes from the school of "Magical Realism", often showing the characters, even as far away as one in NYC and the other in Israel, staged on the same set as if together, ultimately making much of the film seem like merely a fever dream hallucination in Norman's brain rather than actually occurring events.
That "is it real?" aspect is already in the script by way of the constant prevarication and self-delusional assertions Norman makes, always exaggerating his own importance. He's not a liar per se, but as Kellyanne Conway has so vividly put it, a believer in alternate facts. When called on it, he tries to weasel his way out of a corner, but much of the film's effective black humor stems from the fact that the audience is privy to both sides of the story.
Fate is a crutch that Cedar uses to keep the pot boiling but makes most of the movie's twists and turns too far-fetched to be believable. I would have much preferred an organic, unpredictable story line rather than the too-tight, very contrived approach, but that is the auteur's prerogative. These characters, especially Norman, have no degrees of freedom, while good (if conventional) writing is based on giving protagonists enough degrees of freedom to make choices and thereby create viable drama based on the consequences of their specific choices.
In addition to Gere's thoughtful and always in character bravura performance and Ashkenazi's empathetic brilliance (he was great in an earlier Israeli film called "Footnote" that deserves to be more widely known), the spot roles so beautifully enacted include Charlotte Gainsbourg popping up and underplaying in chilling fashion as an Israeli prosecutor/investigator crucial to the story's payoff; Steve Buscemi cast against type as a duped Rabbi, who later shows the explosiveness fans have come to expect from the "Boardwalk Empire" star; Michael Sheeen, perfect as Norman's hapless and put-upon nephew; Harris Yulin as a tough NY power broker; and especially Hank Azaria, briefly astounding as Norman's unlikely doppelganger. This type of self-effacing ensemble is what the Screen Actor's Guild created its best "Cast in a Motion Picture" award to honor.
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