Friday, June 2, 2017

Nosh 66: 'Norman,' 'Chuck' & More

By David Elliott
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, fresh each Friday.

APPETIZER: Reviews of Norman and Chuck

The young Richard Gere often seemed smug in his chiseled beauty, as if admiring a gilded poster of himself. But the dream hunk had a slightly comical, humanizing “flaw”: his rabbit-tooth smile. He has grown into that smile, into its dental hints of playful character. The beauty has rusted, the talent has ripened, the bunny smile endures. In maturity Gere has done excellent work in Dr. T and the Women, Chicago, The Hoax, Arbitrage and Time Out of Mind

Now Norman – his best? Norman Oppenheimer lives to schmooze and wheedle and juice deals. “You’re like a drowning man waving at an ocean liner,” says a top-connection New Yorker, whom Norman uses to worm into the high ranks of hustle. “But I’m a good swimmer,” answers Norman in his nice, nudging way. He is always walking, talking, cell-phoning, offering his card (“Oppenheimer Strategies”). He’s no crook, but big-deal people sense something dubious and are puzzled by his glom-on presence. With small elements of Richard Dreyfuss’s Duddy Kravitz, Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin and Woody Allen’s Zelig, Gere geared up for this most with his gabby con artist Clifford Irving in The Hoax.

Norman’s core family is gone. Surviving relatives avoid him as a dud, a wannabe macher. He seems to live in his big camel-hair coat – we never see his dwelling space. Not to spill the beans here, but the plot spring is Norman’s twisty effort to “play” a visiting Israeli politician (appealing, entirely credible Lior Ashkenazi). This involves a pair of shoes – $1,200 shoes! They must have Astaire taps, because soon, against all odds, Norm is in the big game.

Writer-director Joseph Cedar (a New York-born Israeli) reveals a hip, insider angle of Jewish Manhattan, Israeli-American relations, money in politics, the power hooks of religion and family. Norman’s good but needy rabbi is amusingly played by Steve Buscemi, and as a bigshot Harris Yulin gets off a great line: “Rabbi Blumenthal is not my fucking problem!” Also swell are Michael Sheen and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Jun Miyako wrote a blithe score (jazz, klezmer). Cinematographer Yaron Scharf pulls off visual marvels, pairing some scenes wittily. Fun but serious, the story has a hungry, often pensive urgency. Gere is subtle, not a Woody Allen knockoff. For all his guff and bluff, Norman is a mensch. The aging hustler (his hair tries for boyish bangs) wants to join the action, maybe even pull off a mitzvah (good deed), and he doesn’t nag our empathy. Go ahead, love the guy. Give the rabbit a carrot.    

Definitely not a film about Charles de Gaulle, Chuck concerns boxer turned “entertainer” Chuck Wepner (Liev Schreiber). The “Bleeder from Bayonne” (N.J.) had two big moments in the ’70s. He went almost a full 15 rounds against Muhammad Ali, and when the bloodied Wepner floored him, the champ came back like a furious cyclone. Then Wepner saw himself as the inspiration for Rocky Balboa, Sly Stallone’s iconic movie Palooka. He milked that, charming and then irritating the actor (eventually there was a money settlement). Philippe Falardeau’s movie is a vintage treasury of Jersey slob times: the old tunes, the awful outfits, goombahs, bimbos, disco, coke addiction, broken family life, even a bear Chuck faces in the ring. The KO punch that really hits, harder than Ali, comes from his fed-up wife Phyliss: “You stink, Chuck.”  

Chuck doesn’t stink. Enjoyably unpretentious, it avoids the glazed candy corn of Rocky and the solemn, operatic heft of Raging Bull. Schreiber, beefed-up, plays Wepner as no brain, yet also no dummy. He’s a decently fallible guy making a strange living. Not squeezing pathos, Schreiber is more credible as this hard-hauler than he was as Orson Welles in RKO 481. The cast is a pack of sharp razors: Elisabeth Moss (Phyliss), Naomi Watts (really razored as girlfriend Linda), Ron Perlman (Chuck’s manager), Pooch Hall (Ali) and Michael Rapaport (Chuck’s brother – I’d guess that Rapaport will, within ten years, be playing Donald Trump). There is an overstated scene at a school, and one (not four) bows to Requiem for a Heavyweight would have been enough. The fights (real and faked) are absorbing, and if you don’t root for Chuck you’d better exit early. Go ahead, love the guy. Give the gorilla a banana.

SALAD (A List)
In my opinion, Richard Gere’s Ten Finest Roles so far:
Norman Oppenheimer (Norman, 2017), Dr. T (Dr. T and the Women, 2000), Clifford Irving (The Hoax, 2006), Billy Flynn (Chicago, 2002), Jack Moore (Red Corner, 1997), Robert Miller (Arbitrage, 2012), Edward Lewis (Pretty Woman, 1990), Paul Shepherdson (The Double, 2011), Zack Mayo (An Officer and a Gentleman, 1982), Dixie Dwyer (The Cotton Club, 1984).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Like Marlon Brando, 21, dazzling Tennessee Williams with his solo read-through of A Streetcar Named Desire (after fixing Williams’s beach cottage toilet!), Orson Welles at 19 stunned author Archibald MacLeish with an un-prepped reading of the blank-verse play Panic: “MacLeish was skeptical about the young actor (and then) Orson started with (the most) difficult scene: his breakdown, the climax of the play … MacLeish stared in disbelief as Orson read the lines, the actor’s voice revealed in all its ‘infinite delicacy and brutally devastating power.’ (Next) Orson started over on page one, reading in his mellifluous tones for the next hour and a half, speaking not only (his) dialog but the lines of all the other two dozen roles and even the Greek chorus. His few privileged listeners were spellbound.” Alas, Panic had topical appeal and a short run. (Quote from Patrick McGilligan’s great Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
No movie haunts Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984) more deeply than one of my childhood favorites, John Ford’s The Searchers: “In 1956 The Searchers claimed me with Winton Hoch’s first shot: a door opening on Monument Valley, the moment that ‘permeates all of Wenders’s films’ (Alexander Graf). Ethan (John Wayne) is, like Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), a terse loner embedded in rage. Travis’s bid for redemption is his son. Ethan must save himself by not killing his niece (Natalie Wood), abducted by Indians. Lean, brooding Stanton was no Wayne, and that icon could never have inhabited Travis, but as searchers they are spiritual siblings.” (From the Harry Dean Stanton/ Paris, Texas chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.) 

DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.

Richard Gere and Renee Zellweger flash some vintage moxie in Chicago (Miramax, 2002; director Rob Marshall, cinematographer Dion Beebe).

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