In “Norman,” a delightful semi-screwball comedy from Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar, Richard Gere plays the title character, an aging New York gadfly whose eye is always on the main chance. An inveterate dealmaker, name-dropper and chatter-upper, Norman isn’t above chasing down a hot financial prospect during the latter’s morning run. Wrapped in a camel-hair coat and natty-looking cap, he’s oblivious to the bad vibes he creates, ending even the most mortifying encounter with a chipper “I’ll call you!” (Not incidentally, the film’s subtitle is “The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.”)
As the film opens, Norman is trying to get a deal together with an elusive financier named Jo Wilf (Harris Yulin), roping in Norman’s lawyer nephew, Philip (Michael Sheen), to acquire an in. Later, he attends a gas and oil conference where he sees an Israeli trade minister deliver a visionary talk, and he stalks him to an upper-crust boutique, where the minister, Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), is eying a pair of expensive wingtips.
Cedar films the pivotal scene when Norman and Eshel meet from inside the shop, resulting in a wonderful piece of silent cinema that sets the tone for the rest of the film. As Norman’s and Eshel’s fates intertwine, the filmmaker evinces a superb sense of visual storytelling, using imaginative staging and camerawork to give “Norman” the feel of a modern-day fairy tale. That approach is altogether appropriate considering the nebulousness of Norman’s world, which runs on such intangibles as relationships, favors and proximity to power. Combining the dry wit of a latter-day Woody Allen with a canny eye for reflective and layered surfaces, Cedar creates two utterly credible worlds: the one in which Norman operates, and the brick-and-mortar reality in which everyone else is trying to make their own way.
Like Kevin Costner, Gere is making a gratifyingly graceful transition from ’80s-era heartthrob to venerable character actor. Here, he delivers a crazy-mirror image of his sleek investment banker in 2012’s “Arbitrage,” lending Norman the avid, hungry expression of a lifelong sharpie, but also oodles of soul and vulnerability. Ashkenazi is just as sympathetic as a politician whose transactional notions of friendship don’t necessarily make him a monster. An astoundingly good supporting cast includes Steve Buscemi as Norman’s rabbi, Josh Charles as an elusive millionaire and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a young woman Norman meets on a train coming back from a proIsrael lobbying conference.
One of the film’s best, most visionary moments occurs at that gathering, which winds up catapulting Norman into circumstances he might have only dreamed of, but that quickly spiral into a kind of nightmare. Peppering “Norman” with obliquely mordant observations about Middle East politics, Cedar effortlessly propels the narrative into a sweetly pensive character study of a familiar archetype, which he invests with an angel’s share of humanity and heart. Is Norman a macher, a schnorrer or a mensch? Thanks to the filmmaker’s sensitive touch and Gere’s sympathetic performance, he gets to be all three. And that calls for mazel tovs all around.
R. At area theaters. Contains some obscenity. In English and Hebrew with some subtitles. 117 minutes.