While it is quite the mouthful, the seventeen-syllable title of Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer pretty well tells you everything you need to know about the movie. Obviously in that it outlines the journey of its main character, but also in that this is a movie that considers itself to be a lot more important and successful than it actually is. Like its protagonist, Norman is a movie with high ambitions, but neither the patience nor skill to see them realized. It stumbles across a couple of interesting moments, and the ending (while a little obvious) manages to satisfy, but it can’t quite overcome the subtle irritation of never being quite as clever as it thinks it is.
It’s tempting to spend this entire review mining the uncanny similarities between the movie’s problems and the flaws of its protagonist, but I’ll spare you the indulgent metaphor and tell you what you need to know. Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere) is the personification of fake-it-’til-you-make-it. Walking the line between inspiring and pathetic, Norman traverses the city doing whatever he can to be noticed by New York’s financial elite. Chasing after investors on their morning run, stalking politicians, and lying his way into a stranger’s intimate dinner party are all in a day’s work. Eventually, Norman’s finely tuned B.S. earns him a friendship with Israeli politician Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi) and by extension a reason for people to talk to him. But having finally gotten a seat at the table, Norman quickly finds himself overwhelmed by all the promises he’s been making and must find a way to stop his newfound status ruining him completely.
While I have my problems with the movie, it demands saying that Norman himself is actually a pretty great character. An unbearable combination of Woody Allen and Matt Damon’s character from The Informant, Norman is almost supernatural in his ability to talk and talk and talk without ever really saying anything. People try to swat him away as he buzzes around until eventually they either snap, or find themselves charmed by his determination in spite of how desperate and transparent he is. Gere does a wonderful job of making Norman someone you would never want to spend time around, but you still want him to make it. You know he probably won’t, thanks to that longwinded title, but who doesn’t love a hopeless dreamer?
Problem is, the movie never manages to explain why he is so determined. Presumably his plans are to build a business around his connections, but even when the movie shows Norman at his peak, there is never any money changing hands and no indication on how all his machinations can be monetized. Yes, the need for validation by these people is a driving force for old Norm, but without anything tangible being gained, the only thing he risks when the pressure is turned up is looking stupid. This missing attention to detail lessens the stakes of the movie and makes the whole plot feel undercooked; more like a story outline than a fully formed script.
This isn’t such a problem so long as the movie is entertaining, which sadly is just as often as it isn’t. For the most part, Norman skates by on its quirky lead and a dry Wes Anderson-lite sense of whimsy. As intolerable as Norman is, the frustration he inflicts on those he harasses does make for good comedy, and sprinkled throughout the runtime are fun little sequences that find creative ways to showcase the milestones in Norman’s journey. But not long after one of these flourishes earns a smile, it has you sighing as it drags on and on. And on and on and on. By wringing so much out of Norman‘s pivotal beats, writer/director Joseph Cedar (Footnote) takes out all of their punch and blends them into the rest of the film’s dragging pace.
Norman‘s pretentious and impatient story-telling makes the third act feel unearned and risks losing the audience’s attention long before it comes around. Which is tragic, because the climax itself is actually quite well executed. It all comes together with a neat little bow and a fittingly bittersweet ending, which could have been something special if the strings on the story weren’t so obvious. Were it not for the decent supporting cast of actors like Michael Sheen, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Steve Buscemi all turning up to lend star power to reasonably inconsequential roles, you could be forgiven for feeling Norman was a well-intentioned, but amateurish effort.
With Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, the ingredients are all there for an interesting exploration of the American dream. But with neither the care or finesse needed to bring it to fruition, the movie will leave your mind quicker than it takes to say that marathon of a title at the ticket booth.
THE REEL SCORE: 5/10