'Norman' review: Richard Gere persuasive as a desperate New York 'consultant'

This week some strong, wryly unconventional work opens on a limited number of screens around the country, which means adults not particularly interested in "The Fate of the Furious" can re-enter a movie theater with confidence.

Topic A: "Norman," a mordantly funny study in ambition, desperation, manipulation and luck from the writer-director Joseph Cedar. Born in New York, working primarily in Israel, Cedar makes his English-language feature debut here. In the juicy role of Norman Oppenheimer, the glad-handing, endlessly reinventing consultant of the title, Richard Gere puts his ambiguous charm to work in unpredictable and consistently effective ways.

"I'll have to get the two of you together," Norman says on more than one occasion in "Norman," and this is what Cedar's protagonist lives for: making introductions, establishing connections, anything to gain ground in the hectic 100-yard dash of his life. Working primarily out of various Starbucks and Staples stores in Manhattan, Norman is an adviser in the realm of "tax receivables." He looks like a man to be trusted with your money; in his camel hair overcoat and stylish scarf, Gere's character is borderline smooth, though Norman's financial straits tend to bring out an insistent, nudgy quality in every new social interaction, in whatever party he's talked his way into.

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Cedar calls his movie "the moderate rise and tragic fall of a New York fixer." The dominoes of the screenplay's narrative begin falling when Norman engineers an faux-impromptu meeting with the deputy Israeli minister of trade and labor (played by Lior Ashkenazi, who was wonderful in Cedar's "Footnote"). Norman buys the man a pair of absurdly expensive shoes as a welcome-to-New-York present. As fate dictates, the gesture does not go unremembered when, seven years later, this same mid-level Israeli politician has ascended to the post of prime minister.

From there "Norman" becomes a story of conflicted loyalties and favors leveraged and returned. Norman gains considerable access to power he craves, and if he's not quite "in the room where it happens," as the line from "Hamilton" goes, at least metaphorically he's in the room down the hall and to the right. Cedar's plot plays a clever if occasionally daunting game of connect the dots. The various strands of Norman's life don't seem to tie together, but they do; a grand, faded synagogue in need of a $14 million makeover (Steve Buscemi plays Norman's rabbi; Norman is seen at one point making a dinner out of pickled herring and Ritz crackers in the synagogue rec room) becomes entwined with Norman's ethically controversial business dealings.

Filmed in New York and Jerusalem, "Norman" features Charlotte Gainsbourg as a legal expert with a gathering interest in Norman's dealings; Michael Sheen plays Norman's nephew, who knows his uncle all too well, but knows also he can benefit from his consulting work. Cedar's 2011 marvel "Footnote" took place in a hermetically sealed academic environment populated by highly competitive Talmudic scholars. Before that, Cedar's tense, claustrophobic "Beaufort" captured a very different pressure-cooker situation among Israeli Defense Forces soldiers stationed in Lebanon in 2000. Cedar's not much for conventional, audience-friendly nobility in his characters; he's more interested, and compelled by, the forces that drive men forward (and, to a lesser, marginalized degree, women) into battle.

Norman is a warrior, and a weasel, and a loser, and a winner. Some viewers, many of them Jews, have expressed anger at what they perceive as Cedar's brand of caricature. I don't see it that way; he's a human-scaled, genuinely searching satirist, and if "Norman" isn't quite up to the level of "Footnote," it's still a vital and wily seriocomic odyssey. And Gere has never been better, more alive, on screen.

Michael Phillips is a Chicago Tribune critic.

mjphillips@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @phillipstribune

"Norman" — 3.5 stars

MPAA rating: R (for some language)

Running time: 1:58

Opens: Friday

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