Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar has a gift for extracting relatable and dramatically compelling stories from the hidden depths of Jewish culture. Remarkably, his 2011 film Footnote wrung high drama from a tale of rival father-and-son Talmudic scholars in modern-day Jerusalem, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
Cedar’s first English-language film is Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, which portrays elite segments of New York City’s Jewish community as filtered through the experiences of one Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere). The fixer of the title is code for the lesser-known Yiddish word “macher,” which translates as “a person who gets things done.” The term also is used ironically to describe one who does things others won’t do to oil the social machinery and help people get what they want — all of which applies to Norman in spades.
A vivid and ultimately sympathetic character that seems to be the result of a true collaboration between Cedar and Gere, Norman simultaneously has nothing and everything to offer the world. Nobody knows the real Norman, and he has no actual resources of his own, but his tenacity and shamelessness allow him to navigate social circles that should lie well beyond his reach. That renders him uniquely valuable to the rich and powerful in his community.
As the film moves from character study to what might be described as a thriller, Norman remains at the center, matching up strangers for life-altering mutual favors until — as the film’s title plainly states — events spiral out of control. Emerging slowly is Norman’s perceptive and often moving portrait of the flaws and idiosyncrasies that make each of us human.
Before the opening credits are done we meet our protagonist in voiceover, already scheming to connect a wealthy businessman with a visiting Israeli politician to purchase public tax debts. The unlikely plan could make a lot of money for everyone involved, but we soon see that for all his desperation, Norman is motivated only by the need to matter in some way — to be somebody.
In hopes of connecting with the Israeli official, Norman does something that’s perceived as an act of kindness and later transforms his life, eventually propelling him to the center of global politics and a brewing international scandal. It’s all fairly implausible if not downright hard to believe, but that seems an essential part of Cedar’s vision for the film.
Norman is a fable that seeks a modest place in the long, rich tradition of Jewish fables. The moral of Norman’s story may be that even as human frailties define us and potentially lend meaning to our lives, they also can lead to mortal dangers. Norman sincerely believes his schemes leave room for everyone to win, but life has a way of making sure someone pays a price for that manufactured glory.
Gere’s subtly expressive performance constitutes a glory of another kind. His Norman seems to spend the entire film in a camel’s hair overcoat and driver’s cap pulled down close to his ear buds, an outfit that fends off the New York winter but also represents the protective armor he needs to do battle. Norman is an everyman for the age of smartphones and celebrity, and his struggles come to look a bit like our own.
Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer opens next Friday, May 19 at the Elmwood Palace.