Richard Gere stars in the gratifying drama Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.
Sure, it’s only a coincidence, but there’s something beguiling about the fact that a revival of Six Degrees of Separation, the pre-Facebook, meme-spawning play that popularized the notion that Earth’s human network is far more intimate than we’d imagined, opened on Broadway this week just as the gratifying drama Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer is stepping into cinemas.
These are acutely New York tales, borne of a place where physical proximity to power – Yup, that’s Michael Bloomberg next to me on the subway – can seduce people into believing the thin walls that separate us are actually permeable.
Both are about small-time, benevolent con men trying to leverage their wispy connections to power into something concrete. And though they are character studies of a sort, they leave us understanding as much about ourselves as about the ciphers at their centre.
The business card which Norman Oppenheimer brandishes like a talisman as he wanders around Manhattan reads “Oppenheimer Strategies,” but it would be a stretch to describe anything that Norman (a splendid Richard Gere) does as strategic.
He stalks joggers in Central Park, wanders the halls of dull industry conferences and loiters in front of high-end stores in the childlike hope that he will be able to insinuate himself into the circle of someone – a business leader, a politician, even a mid-level bureaucrat – who is making things happen in the world.
He introduces himself, mentioning something vague about his daughter having babysat a friend of the mark, or his wife having been in a book club with a supposed mutual acquaintance. But the only real connection Norman has to the business world is his indulgent nephew, Philip (Michael Sheen), a lawyer who, listening to an idea his uncle has about an oil-and-gas tax-avoidance scheme he’s hoping to pitch to an industry magnate, tells him, “You’re like a drowning man, trying to wave at an ocean liner.”
Norman takes this in – after a lifetime of petty humiliations, they don’t sting any more – nods, and replies with equanimity: “But I’m a good swimmer.”
It would seem he’s been treading water his whole life. But in the first of four novelistic chapters that comprise this fable-like tale, Norman sidles up to an Israeli deputy minister by the name of Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi) on an official visit to New York during a bout of professional insecurity.
Over Eshel’s mild protestations, Norman buys him a pair of expensive shoes. But though the gift fails to yield any immediate returns, the men stay in touch. And, three years later, when Eshel becomes the Prime Minister of Israel, it looks as if Norman has finally bet on the right horse.
In the ensuing weeks, Norman seems to be suddenly in demand: a potential saviour of his synagogue, which is in danger of being priced out of its neighbourhood; a conduit for potential blockbuster business deals; someone who might smooth the admission of Eshel’s academically underperforming son into Harvard.
But he remains, in writer-director Joseph Cedar’s winsome and knowing comedy-drama, an outsider, desperately dialing the contacts in his iPhone as he wanders the aisles of a Staples store, or the streets of Midtown, or the alley behind his synagogue after he has ducked into the kitchen there for a lonely late-night nosh of herring on Ritz crackers and to listen to the choir practising.
Gere delightfully soft-shoes his way through Norman, surfacing the character’s loneliness without unduly exploiting it. And while Norman is Jewish, Gere stickhandles clear of the clichés we might have expected. “Can you explain to me how your business works?” asks a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) Norman meets on the train who, like us, wants to know more about the enigma in front of her.
But while she grasps the outline of what he does, its essence eludes her. She doesn’t understand that business is merely the world Norman is trying to inhabit in order to feel useful.
In Six Degrees of Separation, the hustler we come to know as Paul explains, “I believe that imagination is the passport we create to take us into the real world.”
Hearing that, Norman Oppenheimer might smile, nod and then hand you his business card.