Joseph Cedar may be one of Israel’s most respected dramatic filmmakers, but he was born in New York City, lived there until he was six, and returned as a young man to earn a graduate degree in film at New York University. Raised in Jerusalem and now based in Tel Aviv, Cedar has won growing acclaim for a series of dramas steeped in the culture and politics of his adopted home—most notably Beaufort (2007), which drew on his experiences as a teenage soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces, and Footnote (2011), about the professional rivalry between a disgraced Talmudic scholar and his up-and-coming son. Both earned Oscar nominations for best foreign-language film, and Footnote grossed a respectable $2 million on the U.S. art-house circuit. Now Cedar makes his English-language debut with the excellent Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, a U.S.-Israeli coproduction set in Manhattan and featuring such familiar faces as Michael Sheen, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Steve Buscemi, and Richard Gere in the title role.
Given the writer-director’s background, you might wonder if Norman—the story of a small-time influence peddler who forges an unlikely friendship with the prime minister of Israel—passes muster as a vision of New York, a portrait of its Jewish community, or a commentary on U.S.-Israeli relations. It’s a little too fuzzy to be effective in any of these respects, but that hardly matters, because for all the shining steel and glass, the movie has the old-world feel of a Jewish folktale, rooted not in a particular time or place but in the moral universe. Norman Oppenheimer, a graying “consultant” whose only real talent is making connections between other people, comes off at first as an overbearing idiot, but he’s also warm and loyal, and Cedar finds a thick streak of altruism in his wheeling and dealing. His affection for the prime minister is real, and the politician returns it in equal measure, but they live in a world where friendship is a coin, to be saved or spent as the situation demands.
Norman is one of those people who can seem oblivious to social boundaries. In the opening sequence he presses his wary nephew, Philip (Sheen), for an entree to one Bill Kavish, executive assistant to a high-rolling financier named Arthur Taub. “Can I tell him we’re related?” Norman asks Philip. “Can I tell him I’m your uncle?” Philip tries to discourage Norman from pursuing Taub: “You’re like a drowning man trying to wave to an ocean liner.” Undeterred, Norman ambushes Kavish (Dan Stevens) on his morning jog through Central Park, proffering his card to the stunned man as if they were at a cocktail party. Kavish hotly refuses to arrange a meeting with Taub, and fortunately for him, he can move faster than Norman. “So I’ll tell my partners we had a good conversation,” Norman calls after him as he runs away.
Not only does Norman blur social lines, he’s a little fuzzy around the edges himself. He appears to wear the same clothes all the time—coat and tie, overcoat and scarf, cloth cap—and Cedar never shows him at home, only at his synagogue, where he schmoozes with the rabbi (Buscemi), takes solace in the evening choir rehearsals, and pokes around in the kitchen for a snack of crackers and pickled herring. Despite his remark to Kavish, he has no partners and, as far as one can tell, no real business; his ambiguous card reads “Oppenheimer Strategies.” He mentions his late wife and grown daughter, but the details of their lives shift with every telling. As the story progresses, the possibility that Norman might be destitute and completely alone lends an unexpected poignance to his obsessive glad-handing; beyond status and influence, he may crave nothing more than human contact.
Gere is well attuned to this vulnerability, and he gives a lovely performance, gentle and ingratiating in the scenes where Norman befriends the handsome Israeli politician Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi, the son in Footnote). After listening to Eshel speak at a conference, Norman trails him as he window-shops, stopping to admire an expensive pair of Italian shoes. Cedar, stressing the transactional nature of the friendship, shoots from inside a swanky shoe store, through a display window that frames their silent encounter, as Norman walks past Eshel, pulls up short, introduces himself, and strikes up a conversation about the shoes; within a minute the men are laughing, Norman has a hand on Eshel’s shoulder, and they’re venturing inside for Eshel to try on the shoes. Hoping to arrange a meeting between Eshel and Arthur Taub, Norman makes the fateful decision to buy the shoes for Eshel, though he gulps when the bill arrives at a whopping $1,197.
Composer Jun Miyake draws on the folk melodies of eastern Europe in all their drollery and melancholy, but Norman seems like a folktale primarily because the story turns on giant strokes of luck, both good and bad. Three years after Norman and Eshel part, the politician is elected prime minister, and the people who were running away from Norman begin running toward him. Cedar stages a beautifully comic sequence in which Norman, arriving with Philip at a New York meet and greet for the newly elected PM, waits in line for a handshake, wondering if the encounter will bring yet another humiliating brush-off. When they finally meet, all doubt is erased as Eshel embraces Norman, reveals that he’s been trying to contact him, proclaims his friendship, and announces that he’s going to make Norman his unofficial “ambassador to New York Jewry.” This Cinderella moment, with Eshel introducing Norman to various bigwigs as an intimate friend, gives way to a montage of glittering lights and of faces zooming toward the camera to request favors of Norman. Those $1,197 shoes, he later declares, were “the best investment I ever made in my life.”
Once Norman has been empowered, you can see how much good he has in him. He takes a matchmaker’s pleasure in grooming people to introduce to each other, and he seems unconcerned with enriching himself. Gere has referred to the character as a “holy idiot,” though only his idiocy is evident to the other people in the story. Norman drives Eshel’s staff batty with his incessant phone calls, and as the prime minister attempts to push a Middle East peace plan through the Knesset, Norman threatens to become a political liability, arranging a complicated deal that will pay off the synagogue’s mortgage, enrich Arthur Taub’s firm, and win Eshel’s son admission to Harvard University. Through it all the friendship between Norman and Eshel endures, though when Norman’s luck sours, his loyalty to the other man will be measured in distance rather than proximity. v