The Richard Gere in "Norman" is quite different than the one we watched cruising down the highway in a Mercedes convertible, blasting "Call Me" by Blondie in "American Gigolo" (1980). He was --- and still is --- so incredibly handsome, but "Norman", like a few other of his films, showcases Gere in a completely different fashion.
Norman Oppenheimer (Gere) is what is known as a "fixer". He literally roams the streets of New York City searching for those opportunities which will help to ingratiate himself into the lives of other, more important people. He's a dreamer --- and a schemer --- who's always got a financial "deal" in his back pocket, trying to emulate the wheelers and dealers he watches from the sidelines.
On top of his inability to connect with the power brokers, Norman doesn't seem to have any friends. His nephew, Philip (Michael Sheen), placates him with brief visits until he needs a rabbi for his wedding. Rabbi Blumenthal (Steve Buscemi) at his synagogue only tolerates Norman because Norman has promised to find a benefactor to pay off the synagogue's mortgage.
But Norman does finally find someone he can help. Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), an Israeli politician, is in New York City alone, and has had a very disappointing day. Norman senses his vulnerability and pounces on this chance to possibly make a valuable acquaintance.
He convinces Micha to try on the pair of shoes he espies while window shopping. The shoes carry a price tag over $1200 --- too much for Micha --- so Norman buys them for him, an act of kindness Micha does not forget. Three years later, Micha is now in New York as the newly elected Prime Minister of Israel, and his old friend, Norman, is always by his side. But when the gift of shoes from years ago comes to light, Norman devises a plan to save everyone but himself.
Writer/director Joseph Cedar ("Footnote", 2011, Oscar-nominee for Best Foreign Language Film) bases his original screenplay on the age-old tale of the Court Jew. This Jew has been beneficial to someone in power. But once the Jew becomes a liability, he's easy to dispense with.
"Norman" focuses on this archetypal character, but Cedar goes a step further by creating his Court Jew as a more sympathetic participant. Norman refers to his wife and daughter often, but we never see any evidence of their existence. At one point, he is caught by Alex Green (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a woman he meets on a train. After saying goodbye, she calls Norman when she sees him sitting in the station late at night, wondering why he's spinning untruths as to his whereabouts.
I found Gere mesmerizing as Norman --- I could not take my eyes from the screen --- he's just so different. This is not the suave business man from "Pretty Woman", instead Norman's ears stick out and he's still sporting the same haircut he had in grade school. It is never odd or distracting that he looks so disparate from his norm.
He and Cedar spent a great deal of time on his transformation. It's believable and heartbreaking. Gere has played compassionate characters before, most notably the professor who takes in an abandoned dog in "Hachi: A Dog's Tale" (2009). (If you have never seen this --- it's a must!). Norman, however, is such an unusual departure, proving once again, what a truly gifted actor Gere is. It is because of his stellar performance that "Norman" proves an intriguing and captivating film.
Opinion: See It Now!