Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere), the struggling head of Oppenheimer Strategies – who usually wears an unflattering, light brown winter coat, a longshoreman’s cap and sports ear buds connected to his iPhone - makes an investment of $1,192.18 during an ordinary weekday in Manhattan. Hoping that this cash outlay would land him future opportunities, his spontaneous action – in fact - earns him a life-changing seat at the table, the connected world of money, politics and access!
Well, sort of.
You see, Norman’s entire life seems to be broiled in sort of terms, because he is not a clearly-defined businessman. He frequently hands out his Oppenheimer Strategies cards and asks perspective clients, “What can I do for you?” The problem? It is difficult to know what he can offer or how he can help.
He does claim long friendships with sought-after people, but when one asks a probing question or two, Norman then speaks in riddles, half-truths or outright lies. A keen, well-trained eye can spot Norman’s shyster-act a mile away, but an unassuming type could mistake his enthusiasm as genuine. Actually, Norman’s desire to become connected is genuine, so sheathes of honesty in his speech do ring true. This is, of course, among the promises that he doesn’t exactly know how to keep.
Writer/director Joseph Cedar’s fascinating character study - which doubles as a casually stressful thriller – is a keeper.
Cedar throws us into Norman’s universe - the cold and busy New York City pavements - and into this man’s desperation for a deal. Norman always seems to be on the outside looking in, and Cedar strategically places and paints his lead character in that light. For one, in many circumstances when he steps into a building, the lighting is deliberately dim. Sometimes we only see outlines of business people lurking - or even plainly standing - in the shadows, and this makes forming bonds with possible leads more difficult. More importantly, it symbolizes Norman’s hobbling attempts to secure a win in the figurative dark. Secondly, he frequently works outside in the below freezing temps during a typical Big Apple winter. Always bundled up with his aforementioned coat and hat, Norman’s face is usually red from the frigid wind or perhaps of embarrassment from constantly fighting an uphill battle. When we see Norman waiting to deliver a sales pitch at 6:56am in Central Park, desperation is the first word that comes to mind.
Masterful is a word that describes Gere’s performance, as he plays a man burdening himself with difficult-to-keep verbal agreements stacked upon one another like a self-defeating pyramid scheme. While Norman is a singularly-focused, one-note machine to reach a monetary promise land, we can also see his internal churn. Gere allows us to feel sympathy for Norman, while sharing his slow descent into quicksand, not entirely unlike the highly effective Sam Raimi’s 1998 thriller, “A Simple Plan”. In that film, one fateful decision by two brothers (Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton) leads to a handwringing experience in which they find themselves over their heads, and Norman discovers a similar slippery slope, that cinematically frays our nerves.
Regrettably, the soundtrack’s slow jazz vibe - filled with snare drum beats and a moody, downtrodden horn section – wore on my nerves fairly quickly. It did fit with Norman’s sort of lovable loser persona, but a tick tock, staccato beat – instead - could have increased the picture’s anxiety. Perhaps no accompanying soundtrack at all would have been more effective, but apparently Cedar did not receive my wish list.
Well, he did pleasantly surprise with a terrific supporting cast, including Michael Sheen, Steve Buscemi, Hank Azaria, and Lior Ashkenazi in perfectly-fit roles to witness Norman’s winding trip to possible redemption or expulsion. In the nebulous world of Oppenheimer Strategies, it turns out that $1,192.18 could buy him either one.