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In 'Norman,' a small-time schemer hits the big time -- until it hits back

The hustler Richard Gere plays in "Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer" is a far cry from the role he played 37 years ago in "American Gigolo."

That starring turn elevated Gere into a sex symbol. In the comi-tragedy "Norman," Gere's nuanced portrayal of Norman Oppenheimer depicts an aging man who wears thick glasses, a camel hair overcoat, gray cap, scarf and earplugs, with a saddle bag across his body and a false facade of confidence.

Norman is a small-time schemer with empty promises to make, non-existent deals to sell and names he doesn't know to drop.

The film takes awhile to get going, but eventually takes hold when a number of situations Norman has inserted himself into become intertwined in unexpected and eventually harrowing ways.

Norman's efforts to ingratiate himself with the rich and powerful hit the jackpot when he befriends Micha Eschel (Lior Ashkenazi), an Israeli deputy minister whose career is in a tailspin.

After hearing Eschel give a talk in Manhattan, Norman follows him into a high-end clothing store, where they strike up a friendship, exchange cell phone numbers and Norman buys his prospect a $1,192 pair of shoes. The investment pays dividends for Norman three years later when Eschel is elected prime minister of Israel.

At a triumphant reception, Micha singles out and embraces Norman in front of a room of politically prominent Jews, elevating him to a level of prestige he's never experienced before, and which he's ill-equipped to handle.

When Norman carelessly inflates his relationship with Micha to an Israeli embassy official (Charlotte Gainsbourg), he soon finds himself ensnared in a political scandal of enormous consequences.

Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar ("Beafort," "Footnote"), presents his main character as a mystery. Where Norman lives is anyone's guess. So are Norman's claims about a wife who passed away and a child. The only people who seem to really know him are his nephew Philip (Michael Sheen) and a rabbi (Steve Buscemi), and both have nearly reached their limit with him.

As much as Norman uses people, they use him, too, when it serves their needs. Philip needs a rabbi to officiate at his mixed marriage. The rabbi needs a donor to bail out his synagogue facing eviction. And a Wall Street financier who Norman tries to cut a deal wants something, too.

Even Micha's wife criticizes her husband, who is genuinely fond of Norman, for taking advantage of him.

As the web thickens and the noose tightens, Cedar shows another side of his exasperating character -- a value system not completely expunged under the strain of his middle-man connivings.

It's wholly unexpected, just as Gere's understated and thoughtful portrayal of Norman's ambitions, insecurities and delusions will be for some viewers.



"Norman: The Moderate Rise of a New York Fixer"

3 stars (out of four)

Starring: Richard Gere, Michael Sheen, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Steve Buscemi

Director: Joseph Cedar

Running time: 118 minutes

Rated: R for language.

The lowdown:  A wheeler-dealer finds the good luck he thought he had when he hitched his star on the new Israeli prime minister has unintended consequences.

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