Midway through Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, the title character sketches a diagram of his intersecting business, political, and charitable connections. Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere) is at the center of the web, and yet he's barely there at all.
You might call Norman a flesh-and-blood social network. He exists to link others, and though he must be driven by self-interest, it's hard to tell. Writer-director Joseph Cedar, very intentionally, never shows Norman's home or office — if he even has them — or the family he often mentions but may not exist. Norman seems tethered to Earth only by a nephew, Philip Cohen (Michael Sheen), a Manhattan attorney who pleads, "don't mention my name."
Most people avoid Norman if they possibly can. The movie's story — intricate, rollicking and sometimes sad — turns on three who don't scamper away: Israeli deputy trade minister Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi, who starred in Cedar's equally tricky previous film, Footnote). Rabbi Blumenthal (Steve Buscemi), who trusts Norman to find the $14 million needed to save his historic synagogue. And Alex Green (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a New York-based corruption investigator for the Israeli government.
The first chapter is full of false starts and failed pacts, although it does see Norman make a possible friend in Micha. Then, three years later, Micha has become prime minister and Norman goes to see him at an AIPAL (read AIPAC) reception in D.C. Micha greets Norman warmly, and suddenly the nonentity is somebody. Micha even has a task for Norman: get his son into Harvard.
Returning to New York by train — Amfleet, not the higher-priced Acela — Norman meets Alex. She tries very hard to ignore him, only to get interested when Norman starts describing his "consulting" business. Since touting his connections is the essence of what Norman does, he could hardly tell her the truth, which is that he barely knows the new PM.
Later, Israel is roiled by reports of an investigation into Micha's ties to a "New York businessman." Norman wonders who that could be.
Adding to the thematic complexity, Micha comes to power as a peace candidate. Yet Cedar, a military veteran whose eerie Beaufort was set in an Israeli outpost in southern Lebanon, doesn't stress geopolitics. He's more interested in the personal variety.
At the reception, Micha mentions the diverse U.S. factions that support Israel, but that's the end of the discussion. Norman doesn't seem to have a position on such matters as a two-state solution, and the word "Palestinian" is never uttered. In Israel, rather then debate Micha's proposal, his opponents seek to destroy the PM with allegations of corruption.
An Israeli who spent the first six years of his life in New York, Cedar is well attuned to the Manhattan-Jerusalem-Tel Aviv nexus. He gets excellent performances from Gere — playing partway against type as a charmer who's unnervingly hot rather than reassuringly cool — and the rest of the cast. Dan Stevens, Hank Azaria, Josh Charles, Isaach de Bankole, and others make strong impressions in small roles.
Less effective are the director's visualizations of Norman's interactions via montages and split screens. Such self-conscious gambits worked better in Footnote because that film was largely about the life of the mind, and its conflicts were more internal.
The movie's other quandary is integral to Cedar's concept. The refusal to give Norman a backstory ultimately limits the impact of the man's so-called tragedy. The final chapter's machinations are fascinating, but they'd evoke stronger emotions if we had some idea where Norman was falling from.