In “Norman,” Richard Gere gives the most maddening, annoying performance of his career — all by design.
He’s a nebbish, a hustler, a finagler, a lapel-grabber — clingy, needy and obviously full of it. If, after a few minutes with him, you want to scram, well, that’s exactly how director Joseph Cedar wants you to feel.
Certainly the other characters share your feelings. The movie is arranged in a series of encounters — Norman buttonholing one person after another, in sequences that are intentionally prolonged for (excruciating) effect.
Norman purportedly has an investment idea, so he waylays a Wall Street relative (Michael Sheen), trying to swing a meeting with a financier (Josh Charles), then promising a rabbi (Steve Buscemi) he’s going to arrange an enormous donation to a synagogue. Sometimes, Norman inflicts himself on strangers — a lawyer (Charlotte Gainsbourg) on a train, a low-level diplomat (Lior Ashkenazi).
Why do any of these people put up with Norman, and why should we?
For the folks in the movie, it’s usually a matter of being polite. For us, at least those of us who stick around, it’s the payoff — writer/director Cedar makes a sudden, straight string of the cat’s cradle plot he has quietly created, one that answers the question: What if M. Night Shyamalan were Jewish?
Suffice it to say it’s the sort of ending (at least as I interpret it) that changes your understanding of everything you’ve seen, makes you feel bad for finding Norman as irksome as everybody else.
What is fair to divulge is that one of Norman’s chance encounters turns out to be portentous: He does a small favor for a man who will one day become prime minister of Israel. When the man rises to power, Norman’s bluster is, for once, borne out — he really does have an in with the prime minister.
Everyone is astounded, and so, in truth, is Norman. In another movie, this stroke of luck would bring about some change in him, but Cedar has other things in mind, and soon Norman is back to his compulsive behavior, indulging his need to ingratiate. He has only one setting, one Gere, as it were.
The actor pushes his charm past his limits here, and that’s also by design. He’s meant to push folks too far, and Charles and Gainsbourg have good scenes in which they get to push back. Ashkenazi, though, has the richest and most pivotal role, a man who sees the obvious flaws in Norman but senses something else, too.
There’s something at work in Norman, and something at work in “Norman.”
Rated R for some language.