For its first half hour, Norman is a pleasant enough lightweight drama about the kind of amiable teenage loser who knows he is smarter than everyone else but isn’t obnoxious about it. Instead, undersized and boyish high school senior Norman Long (Dan Byrd) has an enjoyably self-deprecating charm. His mom was killed in a car crash and his dad (feistily played by Richard Jenkins) has terminal stomach cancer, which gives Norman a pessimistic view of the world, but he mostly keeps his misery in check.
Sunny blond transfer student Emily Parrish (Emily VanCamp, star of TV’s Revenge) lights up Norman’s life as soon as she arrives onscreen in a meet-cute hallway collision. Her outfits are girly and her personality is sweetly guileless, but she’s not one of those quirkily eccentric overgrown children typified by the Zooey Deschanels of the world. She’s also a placidly beautiful knockout who is more physically mature than Norman without looking like a 30-year-old playing a teenager.
Problems arise when the screenplay (by first-timer Talton Wingate) feels the unfortunate need to shift into plot-gimmick mode. Norman hasn’t told Emily, or his popular and handsome best friend James (Billy Lush), or anyone else at school that the reason he’s been acting weird is because his father is dying. That’s “weird” as in performing a graphic improvised monolog about attempted suicide during a drama club audition.
When James gives Norman grief on the way to school about being unreliable, and uses that as the reason for not casting him in a theater production, Norman lies that he is the one with stomach cancer. Audiences may be forgiven at that point for groaning, rolling their eyes and slumping in their seats with disappointment. Any chance that the movie might have gone in an interesting direction, or that it would have been content simply to follow the progress of Norman and Emily’s budding romance, goes right out the car window. The next hour obviously will be devoted to Norman’s efforts to maintain the fiction that he has three months to live, leading to an inevitable and awkward moment of truth.
Last month’s 50/50 failed to make a story about an actual cancer patient funny. Impersonating a cancer patient turns out to be no more amusing in Norman, where the tone shifts to something between black humor and bland dramedy. Both movies even feature similar head-shaving scenes, although Norman benefits from not having a crudely obnoxious Seth Rogen-style sidekick around to Apatow-up the crassness.
One strange way to enjoy Norman more is by pretending the movie is an unofficial prequel to TV’s House MD. (It isn’t, but go with me on this.) Norman could pass for a younger Robert Sean Leonard, who plays oncologist James Wilson in that series. Norman has many of the same mannerisms, the same somewhat bemused expressions, the same tight-lipped half-smile as Wilson. After his intimate experiences with the big “C” in this movie, it’s easy to imagine Norman changing his name, going to medical school and eventually taking a job treating real cancer patients at Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital.
The only question is why Wilson ever would have given up a girlfriend who likes Monty Python, looks like Emily VanCamp and wears skirts a lot. She’s perfect!
[Rating: 3 stars]