Richard Gere, left, as Norman Oppenheimer and Lior Ashkenazi as Micha Eshel. In the unlikely confines of an upscale shoe store, the two characters forge a connection that will have profound ramifications. (photo by Niko Tavernise, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
The marvelous tragicomedy Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer depicts an aging, desperate Jewish influence peddler who has survived in a shark-eat-minnow world via a smooth patter that blends alleged connections with half-promises.
Through manipulation, charm and luck, Norman (a poignant Richard Gere) devises a rendezvous with a minor Israeli deputy minister (Lior Ashkenazi) at loose ends in the Big Apple. In the unlikely confines of an upscale shoe store, they forge a connection that will have profound ramifications for both men – for better and for worse.
The film, which opens today, April 28, marks the first movie that acclaimed writer-director Joseph Cedar has shot in his birthplace. Cedar grew up in Israel from the age of 6, returned to New York to earn his degree in film at New York University and established himself as one of Israel’s finest filmmakers with Time of Favour, Campfire and a pair of Academy Award nominees for best foreign language film, Beaufort and Footnote.
The soft-spoken Cedar allows that he’s exceptionally familiar with both sides of the complicated dynamic between Israel and American Jews.
“It’s a messy relationship, which, from my point of view, justifies the film,” he said. “There’s something fascinating about what Israelis think of Americans and what they expect from Americans, and how Americans view Israel, how they view Israelis and what Israel is for their identity. All these things are a big part of my conversations, so the movie allowed me to touch some of the things that are vital to my life.”
Cedar has a simple explanation for some of the curious behaviour that takes place at high-level meetings between the countries, illustrated by a scene where Ashkenazi’s character, Micha Eshel, now a figure of greater importance, lectures a U.S. diplomat visiting his Washington, D.C., hotel suite.
“One of the things that will explain so many of the encounters between Israelis and American politicians is that every time they show up they’re in jet lag,” Cedar said. “Especially around AIPAC, Israelis come to America, they’re treated like they’re Caesar and they’re a little off-balance because their time zone is all messed up. And they still have to be awake for Israeli things, so they’re sleep-deprived.”
Some viewers may presume a key plot twist in Norman was inspired by the gifts that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu allegedly received from Arnon Milchan, but Cedar finished shooting the film before the news broke.
“That relationship, of an American Jew gifting an Israeli politician, that’s not something new and it’s not something Bibi invented, and it’s not going to go away…. This is the nucleus of what the relationship is about: Americans gift Israelis,” Cedar said. “I’m trying to understand it; I’m not introducing it. Everyone knows that that’s what it is.”
The encounter between Norman and Micha in the shoe store – on which the movie turns – is Cedar’s inspired way of conveying the complicated personal and moral aspects of any transaction between Americans and Israelis.
“All the meetings between Norman and Eshel helped me understand this relationship, and helped me understand this on an individual, human level, not on a geopolitical or policy side,” Cedar explained.
Cedar also viewed Norman’s character and fate through another prism, that of the so-called “court Jews” of past eras.
“There’s a set of characteristics of that personality that I’m attracted to,” he said. “I identify with the need to get into a close circle of power, and then the tragedy of being ultimately kicked out because you have no substance on your own. You have no safety net, no one is there to protect you, you don’t have an interest that someone else needs to protect.”
Cedar injects notes of levity and absurdity into Norman’s saga, which stem from the director’s appreciation for the long tradition in movies of characters looking bad for our amusement.
“Norman is a little less naïve and he is not as pure as [Charlie Chaplin’s] Tramp, but it’s the same kind of situations – of pushing yourself into places where you’re not invited and being kicked out,” he said.
“Cohen’s Advertising Scheme and Cohen’s Fire Sale, part of a series of [short] films from 1902 to 1907, take place in a shop or right outside the shop’s window, and [involve] a merchant trying to cheat someone and ultimately being the victim of his own scheme.”
Cedar acknowledged that some contemporary viewers will see something offensive in the Cohen films.
“Putting it in the context of the image of the Jew in cinema, these are crazy portrayals of Jews,” Cedar said. “They’re grotesque. But it’s just a form of comedy. In the ’30s, if you put that kind of character on the screen, there’s an agenda behind it. In the very beginning, I think it was just funny.”
Gere is not an actor one associates with embarrassment and pratfalls, but he is extremely effective here playing a man trying to retain his dignity amid impending disaster.
“There’s something about Norman that I thought might connect to this primal need of moviegoers to see someone make a fool out of himself, to humiliate himself more than most people are willing to humiliate themselves,” Cedar said. “It’s a form of entertainment that I enjoy.”
There’s another basic element of Norman’s character that Cedar shares, however.
“It’s being essential to something,” he said. “Norman feels if he’s not essential to other people’s projects, then he has no existence. So, his whole motive is, ‘How do I become essential to others? How do I create a situation where people are dependent on me?’ I identify with that because I have that. It’s part of me.”
Michael Fox is a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.