‘Norman’ Is Capably Acted, But Too Often Leaves the Audience Disengaged

Originally posted May 31st, 2017 on thedistantcloseup.com

Whatever you’re trying to be in life, whatever heights you hope to scale, one thing you need most is to find at least one person who is ‘Team You.’ Also, you better pray that person, or those people aren’t the Normans of the world.

Portrayed by Richard Gere, Norman is the title character of Joseph Cedar’s newest film Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer. In my young life on this Earth, I had no idea what exactly a fixer was before viewing this movie, even though their job title sounds equally vague and obvious enough to know what they do without knowing how they do it. Even though the trailer for Cedar’s film might have told me all I needed to know, it’s still comforting to affirm that a fixer is “a person who makes arrangements for other people, especially of an illicit or devious kind.”

The latter portion of that definition, however, doesn’t seem to fit our dear protagonist here – and for that matter, the majority of this film’s tone. There’s nothing of ill-nature about the work Norman does, though perhaps he may come across as a busy body whose doings are meant to fly under people’s noses at times. And for that matter, it’s intriguing to see a film through the perspective of a character who might otherwise be pushed to the background in other pictures; a figurehead of farcical annoyance that will eventually be on the receiving end of the lead’s cathartic release. Think Stephen Tobolowsky’s Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day, though in this case with greater, if also equally insignificant political influence.

Fortunately, Gere’s captivating performance in the title role elevates him beyond a character that we hope gets punched in the face. Even while he effectively plays mind games with the audience, as well as the characters he makes acquaintances out of, as to when he’s being sincere or expertly laying on the flattery, he finds the humanity in a person that might usually typify the bottom feeding characteristics one would associate with New York businessmen. Empathetic and even relatable to a degree, Gere finds compassion and subtlety where other actors in other pictures might need to lend a complete lack of either.

It’s hard to shake the feeling, however, that we only notice the delicacy displayed in Gere’s nuanced, if also deceitful delivery because as viewers, the screenplay seemingly relegates us outside of Cedar’s knowledge, just as Norman is often on the outside trying to wriggle his way in – admittedly, deftly expressed by occasional moments of brown/black color contrasts. We can sympathize with Norman and his eternally racing mind looking for the next step, but we know nothing about him, at least not until the very end, or how he does what he does. Every time it seems like the film is about to let us in on these details, it either cuts to another scene or drowns out the dialogue.

Some might argue that that’s exactly the point of the film, and you know what, I’d agree with them, but the problem is that this approach is too distancing rather than involving. What reason do we have to invest in a character when we’re told we can only know so much about him? Too often, the film leaves us on the outside looking in, and even doing so with distracting style, which is a shame considering the handfuls of beautifully acted scenes, as well as deceptively strong storytelling. Though Cedar admirably lets his actors free in the material, good performances can only carry a film so far.

Even the title comes to suggest what Norman really is: a challenge of engagement to the viewers who are explicitly told what the film is from the start, and yet still left wanting on the outskirts. Gere, as well as Lior Ashkenazi and Michael Sheen, in particular stand out with their abilities, but feel wasted nonetheless. For what it’s worth, it’s entertaining to watch the story unfold in the manner it does, but why couldn’t Cedar invite us on board, rather than string us along for the ride?

3/5

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