Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

Norman movie poster

What I love about Richard Gere as an actor is his ability to play morally questionable characters with such a seductive charm to where I cannot help but root for him to succeed despite his morally dubious intentions. Whether he’s playing an infinitely corrupt cop in “Internal Affairs,” a fraudulent hedge fund manager in “Arbitrage” or a publicity-seeking lawyer in both “Primal Fear” and “Chicago,” Gere makes these characters hopelessly charismatic even as they sink deeper into a realm of lies, deception, and things much worse. Some actors are great at making you despise the villains they play, but Gere is brilliant at making you become enamored with the villainous characters he portrays as he makes breaking the law seem so seductive.

I was reminded of this while watching Gere in “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” as he plays a man eager to achieve great success in his lifetime. While his character of Norman Oppenheimer is not as devious as Dennis Peck or Robert Miller, he’s a guy trying to sell everyone on his financial schemes which never seem to become a reality. When things finally start working out for him, they end up leading him down a road which could lead to either great success or tragic consequences.

Norman is a loner who lives in the shadows of New York City power and money, and he works hard, perhaps much too hard, at being everyone’s friend as he offers the elite something he can’t possibly provide on his own. His efforts, however, lead to little in the way of success, and his constant networking threatens to drive people away as people are easily annoyed just by the sound of his voice. Still, he comes across as a nice guy whom you wouldn’t be quick to shoo away because Gere convinces you Norman means well even as he manipulates those around him to his benefit.

But one day he comes across Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), a charismatic Israeli politician who is alone in New York and at a very vulnerable point in his life. Norman seizes on this vulnerability and befriends Micha in a way few others would dare to, and he cements their budding friendship by buying Micha a pair of shoes. But these are not any ordinary pair of shoes which you would find at your local Payless Shoe Source. The price of this particular pair of shoes is the same as the average one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles, and while Norman initially hesitates once he sees the price, he buys them anyway to gain Micha’s respect. This pays off big time three years later when Micha becomes Prime Minister of Israel as he quickly remembers what Norman did for him. From there, Norman bathes in the respect he has craved for such a long time, and he uses Micha’s name to achieve his biggest deal ever.

When we look into Gere’s eyes, we can see when Norman is lying and when he is being honest with those around him. While other actors would have played this character in a more stereotypical or annoying fashion, Gere makes him into a genuinely well-meaning person whom you find yourself rooting for even when he doesn’t have much to back up his promises with. We also come to see what motivates him: he has a desperate need to matter. He wants his existence to be a necessary part of other peoples’ lives, and this should give you an idea of just how lonely a soul he is.

Writer and director Joseph Cedar, who previously gave us the acclaimed movies “Beaufort” and “Footnote,” leaves parts of Norman’s life ambiguous to the viewer. Norman claims he has a wife and child, but we never see them. Do they actually exist? In the end, it doesn’t matter because Norman truly believes they do, and this belief empowers him to persist in achieving what would seem out of reach to everyone else. Even when he is manipulating others, he never comes across as less than genuine, and we can’t help but root for him.

Cedar made this movie as a re-imaging of an archetypal tale about the Court Jew. Those who, like me, were unfamiliar with this tale, it involves the Court Jew meeting a man of power at a point in his life where his resistance is low, and the Jew gives this man a gift or a favor which the man remembers once he rises in stature. To say more would give a good portion of “Norman” away, but learning of this tale makes one realize why the Jewish people are often closely associating with banking as the job of a banker was one of the very few career paths available to Jews in the past. So, the next time people out there say Jews are greedy with money, remind them we narrowed down their career goals for no good reason.

In addition to Gere, there are other terrific performances worth noting in “Norman.” Charlotte Gainsbourg, looking almost unrecognizable from her tour of duty with Lars Von Trier, co-stars as Alex, one of Norman’s many marks who somehow sees right through his ways to where she is empathetic to his struggles. Steve Buscemi also shows up as Rabbi Blumenthal whose synagogue Norman is trying to save from developers. It feels weird to see Buscemi in a role like this as he plays a decent man who wants the best for others as we are so used to seeing him play unsavory characters in “Reservoir Dogs,” “Con Air,” “Fargo,” and “The Sopranos.” Either that, or there are still movies of his I need to watch.

In a lot of ways, Norman Oppenheimer is a different kind of character from the ones Gere has played in the past, but it also isn’t. He has been great at portraying people who are not easily likable, but he makes us like them as he is infinitely clever at getting us over to his side. After all these years, Gere remains an excellent actor on top of a movie star, and we are past due in realizing this. He has never been just a pretty face, and “Norman” has him giving one of his best performances to date. I have no doubt there are many more great performances from him we have yet to see.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Godzilla (1998)

godzilla-1998-poster

I originally wrote this review on May 20, 1998, not long after I watched this “summer blockbuster.”

The momentous day has finally arrived! Roland Emmerich’s “Godzilla” has finally hit the big screen in all of its reptilian glory. Trailers for this movie have been up and running for over a year now, and the past few weeks have had us bombarded with television commercials from Taco Bell with the Chihuahua, hoping to cash in on this film’s predicted box office success. But now the wait is over and the film has finally hit the big screen. Everyone is waiting to see if the movie will suck in the biggest opening in box office history and outdo “Titanic” as the highest-grossing movie of all time…

What can I tell you? “Godzilla” sucks! I even wrote it up on the dry erase board in the main hall of my college dorm for everyone to see:

GODZILLA SUCKS!!!

People need to be warned because, unlike “Titanic,” this was not worth the wait. For me, this was a very depressing cinematic experience and one of those movies where the trailers for coming attractions, in this case “X-Files – Fight the Future,” “Lethal Weapon 4” and “The Mask of Zorro,” were far more entering than the main event. I read a review somewhere which quoted one patron as saying it made “Jurassic Park: The Lost World” look like “Citizen Kane.” I couldn’t agree more, and I liked “Jurassic Park: The Lost World,” a movie many consider to be one of the worst Steven Spielberg has ever directed.

Where do I start? The characters were all clichés, barely registering as humans. Kevin Dunn plays the military commander who is always in a bad mood and barking out orders, Michael Lerner is your typically clueless mayor, and Matthew Broderick portrays the nerdy scientist who is the polar opposite of Ferris Bueller. Maria Pitillo, who looks a lot like Heather Graham, was cute, but her television reporter character really belongs in a sitcom instead of a movie like this.

I blame this all on the direction of Roland Emmerich, a director who never seems to understand just how cheesy his movies are. “Independence Day” tried to be the next “Star Wars,” but it ended up being an overproduced B-movie. Still, it’s a classic of American cinema when you compare it to this overhyped mess.

There’s a scene in the beginning of the movie where three fishing boats are pulled backward underwater into the water – a direct rip off of “Jaws.” Now on one hand, I liked how Emmerich was never quick to show the giant mutated lizard, but on the other the “Jaws” reference came to illustrate all the things that “Godzilla” unforgivably lacks: great actors, strong characters, and a good storyline. Special effects by themselves can’t save a movie, especially one as crappy as this one.

Furthermore, the music score by David Arnold was way too much, and less could have been a lot more. In fact, everything about this movie was overblown, robbing it of whatever suspense it could ever have hoped to generate. There were moments where things did quiet down, and that was a relief and also showed some promise this movie might actually become exciting to watch. But then the screen became overwhelmed with countless explosions and massive destruction which we have seen in far too many movies to keep track of. Heck, the special effects in those movies are infinitely better than any in “Godzilla.” Trust me; the money is not up there on the screen.

Producer Dean Devlin and Emmerich appear to be big New York haters as they again lay waste to the city’s most famous monuments just like they did in “Independence Day.” But then again, New York seems to be the target of destruction this summer judging from the trailers I have seen for “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon.”

Now for Godzilla himself (or herself if you are not sure). When we do finally get to see the big lizard, it really proves to be nothing more than a big special effect. The more you are aware of this, the less threatening Godzilla becomes, and the action sequences end up lacking a lot of friction. I really loathe digital imaging and effects because they are too obvious on the big screen. In retrospect, I would have preferred seeing a guy in a suit instead.

There’s one moment where Godzilla jumps into the ocean, and it looks like it was lifted directly from a scene in “Alien Resurrection.” Originality is not in existence in films these days, but what else is new? I did not go in expecting a great movie, but I was at least hoping it would be exciting and intense. It was neither.

Furthermore, the look of Godzilla was nothing particularly impressive or horrifying. It looked like a cross between a Tyrannosaurus Rex that had an amazing growth spurt and the kind of lizard I saw crawling all over the place in Ibiza. Once again, originality is nonexistent and we have “Jurassic Park” all over again.

The only part that really scared me some was when the main characters discovered all the eggs Godzilla had lain in Madison Square Garden. What could we expect to see when they hatched? But hatched they did, and they all came out looking like Velociraptors or Velociraptor wannabes.

You’d think after a film like “Independence Day,” which was a huge hit worldwide but not exactly a critical success, that the filmmakers would learn from their mistakes and make a better movie. But no! We get one which is even worse and yet is still bound to make tons of money. But having seen “Godzilla,” I am more than confident that it will not dethrone “Titanic” as the all-time box office champ. Hey Tri-Star Pictures! Don’t count your chickens before they hatch!

A lot of people say that James Cameron is a big egomaniac and a jerk to his cast and crew on each movie he has directed. Maybe he is, claiming he can make these kinds of movies better than everyone else. But after “Godzilla” ended, I think Cameron can brag all he wants until he makes a tremendously crappy movie like this one. I don’t care how bad you thought the dialogue was in “Titanic;” “Godzilla” is the bottom of the barrel in the screenplay department. How many writers did it take to come up with this script anyway?

And, of course, we have the obligatory ending where Madison Square Garden is destroyed, but for some bizarre and unexplained reason there’s an egg which was somehow undamaged (go figure). The baby burst out of the egg just as the movie faded to black, and I imagined a lot of audience members probably thought the following when they saw it:

“Oh no! It’s a baby!!!”

But I just stared at the screen and thought to myself:

“Oh no! It’s a set up for a sequel!! SAVE US NOW!!!”

Just how many times can you destroy New York in the movies anyway?

½* out of * * * *