Israeli cinema has not had much to say about the relationship between Jewishness and Israeliness; when the subject comes up, it is usually not directly, but in an allegorical way (as in Rafi Bukai’s “Avanti Popolo,” for example). One main reason director Joseph Cedar is such an important part of the local cinematic landscape is that he, unlike others, has asked how being Israeli is related to being Jewish – an issue that the stories he tells have brought up in different ways.
Cedar’s interest in this topic has been evident from his first movie, “Time of Favor,” through “Campfire” and “Footnote,” to his latest offering, “Norman,” or – in its full title – “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.” (“Beaufort” seems to me the only exception, though there was a certain elegiac quality to its portrait of a suffering Israeli soldier in the days preceding Israel’s military withdrawal from Lebanon.) In the Hebrew version of the subtitle, the hero of “Norman” is described as a “macher” (rather than the more neutral “fixer” in the English), a Yiddish term that immediately gives “Norman” the feel of a Jewish folktale. Indeed, as the choice of term suggests, Cedar is aiming for the humorous yet melancholy air of such tales, even though “Norman” is set in New York and unfolds mostly in English.
In its focus on the relationship between two men, “Norman” is a direct extension of Cedar’s previous movie, “Footnote.” In the latter, the two men were father and son, Talmudic scholars whose opposing approaches to their studies colored their personal conflicts as well. “Norman” follows a Jewish American wheeler-dealer and an Israeli politician as their evolving bond becomes one of mutual exploitation.
If we view it as an allegory, “Norman” can also be seen as a story of fathers and sons: the father, in this case, is American Jewry, represented by Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere), an elderly, somewhat pathetic “macher,” and the son is the younger, more attractive Israeliness embodied in Israeli politician Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi). A chance encounter at a high-end Manhattan shoe store brings the two together, and the bond between them is sealed when the “father” – who is always hustling, in one way or another – buys the “son” a pair of shoes, a smart screenwriting choice that adds to the immediate Yiddish atmosphere of the tale.
But there is also a fundamental difference between “Norman” and “Footnote,” and this difference makes “Norman” a better picture, but also accounts for its limitations. “Footnote” was based on a single plot premise that Cedar developed throughout the movie: a bureaucratic error made by the committee that announces the winners of the Israel Prize for Talmud studies. This narrative ploy deepened and enhanced the movie’s account of the actual, as well as symbolic, relationship between the father (who was mistakenly informed that he had won) and the son (who was the actual winner). “Norman” is more abstract, at least in its first half, and the plot grows out of this abstract quality. If “Footnote” primarily told a story – which I for one found to possess a certain restricting monotony – “Norman” aims to be above all a portrait, which works well as long as the plot does not get in the way.
Too much story
Norman is more an idea than a character. We know nothing about him – not where he lives, not even if the tragic family loss he alludes to is true or made up. We only ever see him in one of two situations: either walking down a wintery street, talking on the phone and ever ready to whip out a business card for any potentially useful stranger; or crashing various social gatherings. Norman is his own invention, though hardly an original one, and Cedar (with Gere’s help) offers a precise depiction of his busybody hero, even if that depiction is at times as tedious as the man himself.
Cedar divides Norman’s story into four “acts,” perhaps wishing to stress the theatrical nature of the movie’s comedy, which seemed to me influenced by Molière in the way it presents the hero and depicts his social interactions. The first act, which establishes the basis for Norman’s portrait, is the best, because it is also the simplest and most forthright. It shows one direction the movie might have chosen for itself, which is to portray the Jewish-American macher as an essence rooted in historical tradition, which would have been anachronistic if not for Norman’s chance meeting with Eshel, an Israeli deputy minister. This random encounter between the American Jew and the Israeli politician reroutes a faded, outdated essence toward a dubious present.
Three years pass between the first act and the second; Eshel becomes prime minister. Here the movie gets into trouble. Though Norman’s personality is the focus throughout, for the film to work – emotionally and conceptually, as both concrete story and allegory – it also needs to be a portrait of Eshel, and in that sense it falters. The fact that we know nothing about Norman, beyond his essential “macher” quality, only helps his portrait; but the meager characterization of Eshel (despite Ashkenazi’s charming performance) hampers not only his presence in the movie, but ultimately Norman’s portrait as well, and therefore what the film as a whole has to say.
Maybe Cedar thought Israeli audiences were familiar enough with recent Israeli governments and leaders to fill in the void left around Eshel, but even this familiarity is not enough to make the movie complete. Cedar is without doubt a highly skilled filmmaker, and his movies have a wit and wisdom that make them stand out among local pictures. But as both writer and director, he also tends to get himself into trouble, and as “Norman” unfolds, this tendency becomes evident. He piles on more and more plot, characters, and visual devices that, even when their intention is clear, hamper the result more than they help it. There is too much story in the movie’s second half, and it is not told clearly enough. As the film progresses, its concrete level increasingly clashes with its abstract, allegorical side, and the result becomes less interesting than it could be – and still is, in some of the movie’s best scenes.
On its broadest level, “Norman” – though its title suggests an exclusive focus on the American hero – aims to offer a double portrait of the “macher,” whose Jewish-American incarnation meets its oh-so-different Israeli counterpart, creating both a bond and a conflict between them and thus driving the plot toward the inevitable end. Had Cedar managed to pursue this goal in a more focused, organized way, “Norman” might have been a satire whose relevance exceeds current events and taps into something deep and essential about Israeli life. Then the movie might have been more than a tale whose amused tone is lined with a darkness that makes it ironic and ambivalent. More importantly, it would have been relevant to more than just our own local existence, in which the connection between Jewishness and Israeliness remains unexplored in a potentially destructive, even tragic way.