Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer is the fifth film from New York-born Israeli director Joseph Cedar, and his first English film. Opened in New York on April 14, this poignant, sometimes heartbreaking film offers a glimpse into a very specific section of New York’s Jewish community. Perhaps it’s a caricature, perhaps it’s real, perhaps it’s a bit of both; the film mirrors the world Norman has created for himself.
Addressing whether meaning gets lost in translation between Hebrew and English, Cedar remarked, “The work itself is the same. Trying to get every moment in the story to feel true and meaningful requires digging into the layers under the script. Language makes no difference. Being able to work in both languages is a tremendous advantage.”
Israeli storytelling, particularly on television, is currently being celebrated. Hit series such as Showtime’s Homeland and HBO’s In Treatment, which ran from 2008 through 2010, were adopted from Israeli shows.
Norman, convincingly played by Richard Gere, fancies and brands himself more important than he is, but usually in a harmless way. The currency of his influence is the affection and generosity truly important people have for him. They know Norman for what he really is, but enjoy the exalted estimation in which he holds them. He gets a pass.
“I gravitate to the hustler,” said Gere. “Norman is all phony—always improvising a scheme. He is completely original: I can play him, but I cannot explain him,” Gere admitted.
In choosing to be part of a smaller film, Gere said that he was entering a new phase of his career. “I don’t feel like I’m making difficult choices….Maybe I made some mental transition about five years ago—to make interesting films.”
Norman was filmed entirely in New York on a 30-day-maximum production budget. “It’s only about the work—only about telling stories, within the structure of independent movies, in New York,” said Cedar.
Asked why he cast non-Jews in such archetypal “Jewish” roles, Cedar responded that he is aware of the sensibilities around casting people solely in their ethnic group. He reminded New York Jewish Life (NYJL) that the last people who cast Jews according to ethnicity were the Nazis. “Being Jewish is not like being other ethnicities: You can choose to be Jewish or not. Jewish actors can choose—a Jew in a Jewish role is not necessary.”
And so Cedar chose qualification over ethnicity, placing non-Jewish actors in most of the major American Jewish roles. The Israeli roles are mostly ethnic, except for a key role played by French star Charlotte Gainsbourg. Welsh actor Michael Sheen plays Philip Cohen, Norman’s nephew. Steve Buscemi, who is at home in both feature and independent films, plays a rabbi.
“Norman is someone I needed to investigate,” said Cedar. “The process makes me see the world through his eyes. Now I understand why Norman does what he does and what his contributions are. Norman is the glue for Tikkun Olam—repair the world. His actions are completely benevolent—as long as he gets his 7 percent.”
Overall, Norman wants everything to work out for everybody. Finally, Norman is forced to see himself as he really is, a man no one will save because what he contributes can be set aside when necessary, and can then be easily replaced. “Everybody gets what they want, as long as Norman is eliminated,” Cedar said.
The film exposes layers of the inner workings and networking tactics that are not exactly clean or correct, yet are very common and very acceptable. Norman tries to play with the big boys, making deals that benefit some and obligate others. Each is a domino in a multilane game that Norman usually handles well, but then the players and consequences get too large.
Norman’s need for approval and for proximity to the people who make serious decisions threatens the position of fictional Israeli Prime Minister Micha Eshel, played by Lior Ashkenazi.
Ashkenazi told the attentive crowd at the Q&A that “Eshel is the counterpoint to Norman….Everybody knows a Norman; everyone becomes Norman at some point in life.”
NYJL asked Ashkenazi about the political reality of the film. “I do not want to judge…the MKs [members of Knesset, Israel’s parliament] did not want to talk with me,” he replied. “So I asked myself, ‘Who is this guy?’” He noted that “Israeli politicians like being abroad, attending conventions and conferences, even if they don’t need to be abroad. Being in New York is the starting point.”
NYJL asked Ashkenazi if the portrayal of Jews in Norman gives anti-Semites yet another negative impression of the Jewish community, noting that Micha’s adviser describes Norman as “scheming” and “bloodsucking.”
Ashkenazi replied, “They [anti-Semites] will find negatives anyway. It doesn’t matter if they see the movie from the start to the end. It doesn’t matter because you won’t change what they’re thinking about Jews. Joseph and Richard made a full portrait. It’s not a silhouette, not a caricature of a Jew. It doesn’t matter who sees it—if you’re anti-Semitic, you’ll stay anti-Semitic.”
“The first time I was in a shul in New York I was amazed,” Ashkenazi continued. “It’s so different from what’s going on in Israel—it’s like a whole other religion. In New York, it’s like a show. In Israel, it’s more intimate. We do things very differently. There are so many different things about Judaism.”
NYJL asked the assembled filmmakers about the complicated relationships the film portrays. The consensus was that Norman accurately describes the relationship between American and Israeli Jews and politicians. The film depicts the tension inherent in trying to influence, as well as the dangers of mixing money, people and politicians. It uses humor to touch on some of the core issues of the American Jewish community: conversion, synagogue support and Jewish identity.
The assembled talent concluded that Norman is intended to make the audience think, reevaluate, smile and consider different aspects of personality and relationships between people and countries.