American gigolo now an ageing hustler
WRITER-DIRECTOR Joseph Cedar’s latest feature is subtle, surprising and does a fine job of combining pathos, gentle, character-based comedy and political satire. It’s the story of Norman Oppenheimer (Richard American Gigolo Gere), a small-time “shady Jewish
macher ” as he is described at one stage. Based in New York, Norman is a “fixer”: he introduces politicians and business people to one another and tries to insert himself into their lives.
He is well used to humiliation. Everyone tries to brush him off. “You’re like a drowning man trying to wave at an ocean liner,” he is told. Typically, he turns the remark into a compliment. “But I am good swimmer,” he protests.
In the course of the film, Norman elicits our pity, our disdain and also, against the odds, our sympathy.
Gere plays him beautifully, capturing his neediness, his perseverance and his strange innocence. (At times, the performance rekindles memories of Peter Sellers as the gardener-turnedpolitician in Being There.)
The scene in which he comes together with Israeli deputy minister of trade and labour Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi) is cleverly observed. As ever, Norman is desperate to ingratiate himself. He buys the politician a pair of very expensive shoes. This is his “foot in the door”.
As Eshel’s career takes off, the politician (now prime minister) remembers Norman. “He helps the lump in my chest disappear,’ Eshel says of Norman’s unlikely ability to relieve the stress in others, even as he piles it on himself.
Norman makes promises on which generally he can’t deliver. With Eshel’s patronage, he briefly becomes a man of real influence – but he is also quickly and unwittingly involved in a full-blown political scandal.
Cedar has a fine cast – Steve Buscemi as a rabbi, Michael Sheen as a lobbyist, Charlotte Gainsbourg as an anticorruption lawyer, Ashkenazi as the politician – but the actors here are foils to Gere’s Norman. He is in virtually every scene and he is always the one making the running.
The film is full of ironies. Norman is supposedly the hustler but he has reserves of loyalty and decency that his would-be clients lack. He is either mendacious or delusional or both, claiming friendships that don’t exist. Nonetheless, when he is thrown out of a dinner party that he has gatecrashed (“You just can’t walk in and sit at my table”), he somehow retains his dignity.
He is ready to field calls from important contacts on his mobile phone. Even if he is lying in the rubbish or sitting alone in the bus station, he’ll make it seem that he is in his office or at an important function.
He always wants to help – to raise money to keep his local synagogue open or to peddle influence to get a friend’s son into an Ivy League college.
We’re in a cut-throat world of politics and schmoozing but the wistful music and playful chapter titles give the film the feel of a folk tale or of a slightly darker version of a Woody Allen comedy.
Richard Gere as Norman Oppenheimer in Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.