Norman: Good Overlooked Film

Directed by Joseph Cedar
Sony, 158 minutes, R (language and because those rating it are insane!)

Hollywood dominates the North American movie hype machine, so we hear less about so-called niche markets like Spanish-language films, Bollywood imports, and “hood” movies targeted for black urban markets. There is also a thriving Jewish cinema, which has long wrestled with the question of whether to mainstream or brand its products as identity films. Generally it seeks to do a bit of each and I’ll leave it to others to say how successful (or not) this approach has been. My film judgment tends to rest on the decidedly less weighty criterion of whether or not I like the film. If you share that view, I think you’ll find Norman a film worthy of consideration.

Norman Offenheimer (Richard Gere) is Manhattan “fixer.” He’s the guy who (says he) knows people who know people who can introduce you to people you ought to know. Got that? The Yiddish for such a person is macher and it doesn’t have an easy English translation. Norman’s not exactly a con man and he’s certainly not the “wise guy” trope we find in Italian-American movies. The macher strives to be influential, a hot shot to be sure, but a mover and shaker with a Border collie mentality and a sense of duty to community lurking somewhere. Norman’s problem is that he’s good enough at the racket to be semi-convincing and it would be better for all concerned if he was either really good or really awful. He’s also a bit of a mystery man in that he’s always dapper, but doesn’t seem to be well off, and few know exactly how he supports himself or where he goes when he’s not in public. He also comes off as desperate to be a player—all dressed up with nothing to fix. Lightweight dreamer or heavy-duty huckster? How does one classify a person who is more of a serial exaggerator rather than a liar?

Norman’s big break comes when he tries to use a sullen mid-level Israeli politician, Misha Eshel (Lior Askkenazi), to thread his way between two high-powered Manhattan financiers, Jo Wilf and Arthur Taub. Instead, Norman ends up doing a good deed for a self-doubter who, three years later, is Prime Minister of Israel. All of a sudden Norman is a player. The question for the rest of the film is whether he can do good with his power, or if he’s a walking, talking textbook case of the Peter Principle in way over his head.

Director Joseph Cedar tells Norman’s tale in four acts, but don’t assume that the word “tragic” in the title is what you think. The film is filled with humor and poignancy and Gere is really good as Norman, whom he plays with enough charm to make you care about him, but also with an obsequious whininess that makes him unlikely to be on your cocktail party guest list. There are also nice parts for Steve Buscemi as a scheming rabbi, Charlotte Gainsbourg as a secretive Israeli government official, and a very juicy part for Hank Azarian, who is essentially Norman thirty years earlier. The interplay between Gere and Azarian alone justifies watching the film; they go eyeball to eyeball like a hungry young dog trying to convince a street-wise older cur to drop his bone. As the four-act structure suggests, this ‘movie’ often feels more like a well-done Off-Broadway theater project, my point being that it feels “small” in cinematic terms. Luckily the acting takes us places the camera doesn’t. So too does a script—also from Cedar—that doesn’t invite easy judgments about anyone’s basic character, motives, or deeds. And what makes a better Jewish morality tale than one centered on conflict and guilt?

Rob Weir

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