Meet Norman Oppenheimer — glad-hander, fixer, wanna-be. Coming this weekend to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center is Richard Gere’s second current movie, the comedy “Norman — The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.” This time, instead of the congressman in “The Dinner,” Gere plays Norman Oppenheimer. Norman is a businessman with no real business, no office, no home, not much family to speak of — just a camelhair coat and the cell phone he uses to try to make deals.
If he weren’t so warmly and well portrayed by Gere, he would be insufferable: a phony, a glad-hander, a fixer (a person who puts together shady deals). He’s enough of a chameleon to match Woody Allen’s Zelig from the 1983 movie of the same name. The catch with Norman is that he doesn’t seem to be looking for money, just recognition and connections. At one point he badgers his nephew Philip (Michael Sheen) to help him set up a deal. Another time the viewer sees him stop a runner in Central Park in the early morning hours to peddle a proposed deal.
In the first of four acts, “A Foot in the Door,” Norman does make a successful connection. He meets an Israeli politician, Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), and buys him a $1,000 pair of shoes. Graft? For anyone but Norman it might be, but he’s just looking to forge a relationship. He gets Eshel invited to a fancy dinner party. When Eshel doesn’t show up, Norman is unceremoniously ushered out the door. When he talks to Eshel later, he claims he’s just returned from the dinner party. It’s not an out-and-out lie, but the kind of bending the truth that’s Norman’s forte.
Three years pass, and by “Act Two: The Right Horse,” Eshel has become Israel’s prime minister. He gives Norman a welcoming hug at a Washington, D.C., reception, and our fixer is off and running, juggling one deal after another, most of which involve his relationship with the prime minister. For instance, Eshel’s son David wants to go to Harvard, but doesn’t have the grades. Norman weasels a promise from his nephew to pull the necessary strings. Riding back to New York, Norman sits next to Alex (Charlotte Gainsbourg, playing an Israeli operative) and chats her up. “What do you need?” he asks. “I’ll get it for you.” Those quintessential sentences define Norman.
In “Act Three: The Anonymous Donor,” Norman promises to save his synagogue from losing its building. He assures Rabbi Blumenthal (Steve Buscemi) that he will find a donor, and when the congregation pressures him to produce, he invents an anonymous benefactor. Along the way, plenty of the people Norman meets recognize him for the scam artist he is. The catch is, others like Eshel see him as a good-hearted, well-meaning fellow. By “Act Four: The Price of Peace,” Norman’s dealmaking catches up with him. As his blotchy face shows, he’s crossed too many wires, and can’t deliver what he’s promised.
Norman lives in an urban world, most often wandering the streets of New York and its coffee shops while he uses his cell phone. He never appears at home, and his peripatetic life turns to nightmare when he finds himself temporarily trapped in the Israeli Embassy’s security cell. Split-screens, overhead shots, and partial freeze-frames try to enliven the backdrop of Norman’s essentially sterile world. But the characters make the movie — especially Norman. As the 1961 pop tune “Norman,” which could have been the movie’s theme song, goes, “My heart belongs to him.”
For information and tickets for “Norman” and other Film Center films, go to mvfilmsociety.com.