While this sometimes witty and skillfully made modern fable is fitfully entertaining – and loaded with fresh, richly textured views of New York City – it is also frustrating. The title character, played by a nearly unrecognizable Richard Gere, is called a “fixer”; i.e., someone who “fixes” people up with other people so that they can make deals with each other. In traditional Jewish lore, such people are blessed with a particular talent for this, and held in high esteem. Sorry to say, Norman doesn’t make the grade. In fact, any real fixer has a right to be offended.
Norman, in his 60s, is still good looking in his elegant, if well-worn business attire. We see him float around Manhattan in pursuit of new prospects. He doesn’t seem to eat, sleep, have a place to live or know anyone intimately. His “family” consists of a nephew, a lawyer played by Michael Sheen, who tries, unsuccessfully, to avoid getting involved in his schemes. The film opens with Norman trying to set up a meeting with a mid-level Israeli official, played by Lior Ashkenazi, who is visiting New York. Through persistence and luck – and a gift of an expensive pair of shoes – Norman establishes a kind of relationship with him, seemingly based on mutual admiration. The convoluted story – which I won’t even attempt to summarize – concerns what happens after this official suddenly becomes Prime Minister of Israel three years later.
It seems that writer-director Joseph Cedar (“Footnote”) is of two minds about his protagonist. Norman is both a deceitful opportunist and a pathetic, well-meaning victim of his own delusions. The two sides never quite gel in Gere’s one-note performance. The “pathetic victim” wins every time. This is established in two key scenes. In the first, an early scene, Norman confronts the host of a dinner-party to which he showed up without an invitation. The host, forcefully played by Josh Charles, registers amazed disbelief as Norman tries to talk his way into a seat at the table. And the result is obvious; we’d throw the intruder out too.
The other scene is the best written in the film. In a sly, subtly layered performance, Charlotte Gainsbourg plays an Israeli prosecutor who meets Norman on the train. At first put off by his clumsy self-promotion, she is also intrigued when he shows proof of his high-level contacts. How could such a loser get so close to power, she thinks. Feigning a personal interest in him, she gets Norman to open up about his far-flung network, and soon has investigative leads that threaten to topple the Israeli government. It’s the only female role that lasts more than a few seconds, and Gainsbourg makes the most of it.
But, ultimately, this potentially interesting story is bungled badly. In culinary terms, it’s an overstuffed sandwich that’s hard to swallow and digest. We’re asked to take these huge leaps in plausibility about Norman’s intimacy with politically powerful people, but what we see is something entirely different: an uncertain, rather shadowy figure who seems to improvise every pitch to complete strangers on the spur of the moment. So when they line up to show how much they rely on his superior networking skills, we can only shake our heads and think we missed something.
Still, however indigestible, the dish looks pretty appetizing. Whether it’s a synagogue, a restaurant, Central Park or even a back alley, Cedar chooses his locations and frames his shots attractively, and is immensely helped by sharp editing (by Brian A. Kates). The use of split-screen when Norman is talking long distance is brisk and innovative. Other sequences also stand out, especially the Hank Azaria episode near the end. Although self-contained and therefore irrelevant to the story, it has a nifty payoff.
The NYTimes reviewer said this is one of the few films where the punch-line is as good as the delivery. I disagree. The punch-line here – and it’s a good one! – is that the people Norman made promises to aren’t able to get what they were promised until they publicly denounce him and ruin his life. But when a good joke is well told, the punch-line snaps into place. Unfortunately, the delivery in this case is halting, repetitive and just not very believable.