Account of a Hat.” In one of Sholem Aleichem’s best–loved stories, a wheeler
dealer is forever “negotiating transactions” until “one day God takes pity on him,
and for the first time in his career -- are you listening? -- he actually works
out a deal.” But on account of a hat, exhilaration turns into farce and when he
finally gets home, the people “point him out in the streets and hold their
Joseph Cedar, the Israeli-American director of Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, ever
Account of a Hat?” As Tevye famously said: “I’ll tell you -- I don’t know!”
But since I do know that Cedar planted a snippet from Fiddler on the Roof in his last film, Footnote, I am placing my chips on “yes.”
Oppenheimer, the eponymous hero of Cedar’s new film, also negotiates “transactions,”
however, in Norman’s case, God’s instrument is not a hat but a pair of shoes. Late
one night, on a train from Washington, D.C. to Manhattan, Norman describes
these shoes as “the most expensive shoes in all of New York,” and, for the
first time in his career, someone -- a woman named Alex -- is actually listening.
Maybe if Norman had spent more time reading Sholem Aleichem stories, he would
have known to keep his mouth shut on a train … but where better for Cedar (who
also wrote the Norman screenplay) to sprinkle
the seeds of Norman’s “tragic fall” than
on a train from Union Station to Penn Station?
shoes are not Norman’s shoes; he buys them as a gift for a man named Micha
Eshel who has come to New York to speak at a conference. Eshel is one of three
deputies to a minister in the cabinet of Israel’s (unnamed) prime minister, so
his presentation is sparsely attended, and when it is over, he leaves the hotel
and begins wandering the streets of Midtown Manhattan tourist-style. Eshel
thinks he is alone. He has no idea that Norman is shadowing him, waiting for
just the right moment to pounce.
Norman’s modus operandi, and it rarely works, but Eshel is at a low point in
his life and he simply does not have sufficient energy to resist. The apparently
unselfish kindness of an American man -- obviously a Jewish-American man -- moves
him, so he allows Norman to purchase the shoes, almost as a favor to him.
to his hotel, Eshel takes a call from his handler, Duby, and Duby is
immediately skeptical. Eshel submits, goes to dinner alone in the hotel
restaurant (It must be in the hotel, Duby reminds him, because the gas company
is paying for his trip!), eats oysters (treif!),
and gets drunk. Back in his room, Eshel pulls Norman’s card from the pocket of
his jacket and calls. And when Norman answers, Eshel whispers to him in a
moment of male bonding so heart-rending that the memory of it still sends
chills up my spine:
“The big wheel in the
amusement park? How do you say? Galgal anak?”
“The Ferris Wheel?”
“Yes, yes, the Ferris
Wheel. Sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down. I just wanted to say I
have that taste, you know? Being on top of everything? Once you’ve tasted it,
you can’t settle for anything else. Do you understand what I am saying?”
“I too do.”
curtain falls on act one, and when act two begins “three years and many small
favors later,” Eshel and Norman are both on the biggest Ferris Wheel of all,
the Ferris Wheel in Washington, D.C. And now I will say no more about the plot;
I will talk only about the execution.
about Norman is first rate. The
casting is superb, beginning with Richard Gere as Norman and Lior Ashkenazi as Micha
Eshel. On the Israeli poster for Norman,
Gere and Ashkenazi are back-to-back, emphasizing that they are equal partners
in this story. On the other hand, the American poster, which only shows Richard
Gere, makes the pragmatic assumption that many Americans have no idea who Lior Ashkenazi is.
readers who fall into this category, let me just say that Ashkenazi is as much
a heartthrob in Israel as Gere is here. Do Americans know that Ashkenazi was
the star of Late Marriage and Walk on Water? Do Israelis know what Gere
did after Pretty Woman, let alone
before? No matter. Cedar knows that these two men actually do share intimate
knowledge of how it feels to be at the top of the wheel, and they also understand
that they have both passed its peak. Older now, they are still in the game, but
more as character actors than objects of desire. How perceptive of Cedar to cast
such a potent pair in a “bromance” of such depth and poignancy.
huge cast also contains many well-known actors playing Jewish men, and part of
the joke is that most of them are as goyishe
as Gere. Josh Charles as “Arthur Taub,” Dan Stevens as “Bill Kavish,” Michael
Sheen as “Philip Cohen,” Steve Buscemi as “Rabbi Blumenthal,” are any of them
Jewish? Josh Charles (born Joshua Aaron Charles) has a Jewish father and a
mother of German/English/Scottish
ancestry, so you decide. The others? Definitely not.
Harris Yulin as Jo Wilf-- the “ocean liner” of movers and shakers -- has a
career based, to some extent, on his Ashkenazi Jewish background. But what
about Hank Azaria you ask? Another joke. Azaria gives Srul Katz a risibly fake
“Yiddish accent” which is surely intentional since this master of voices
actually grew up in a Ladino-speaking family.
the actors who play the Israelis in Eshel’s world (Yehuda Almagor as Duby, Neta Riskin as Eshel’s chief aide and
Tali Sharon as Eshel’s wife) are all stars
there, even though they are probably unknown here.
Alex? Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Alex
Green as the complete cosmopolitan. When Norman prods, Alex tells him -- in a
perfect British accent -- that she is from Geneva. Gainsbourg (who, like Josh
Charles, has a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother) showed her gravitas early
when Franco Zeffirelli cast her as Jane Eyre in the
mid-90s, and she has carried it with her ever since through a huge number of
films (many in French). As the Paris-born daughter of Serge Gainsbourg, she
brings personal knowledge of Ferris Wheels to her portrayal of Alex too. When
Norman asks Alex what she needs, Alex replies: “I need the satisfaction of
knowing I am doing good in the world. Can you give me that, Norman?”
once, Norman is stumped, but Cedar is not. A master of his craft, as best exemplified
in two dazzling scenes in which time literally stops (first at the top, and then
at the bottom), Cedar receives expert support from everyone on his team. Cinematographer
Yaron Scarf (who won an Ophir Award for Footnote)
is back, but for Norman, Cedar also
added many newcomers to his crew including music director Hal Wilner (who
brings both cantorial solos and klezmer riffs to composer Jun Miyake’s score),
costume designer Michelle Matland, and casting director Laura Rosenthal. Working
with a large team of American and Israeli producers, Cedar has secured his
place in world cinema.
“a Jew” in Norman? What is “a Jew” in
this crazy world of ours? This is the conundrum in which Cedar ensnares us,
because answers to questions like these are no longer as clear as they were
once thought to be. And that brings us to God. Where is God in this film? God
is certainly the force that powers the wheel; God is “the ghost in the
machine.” But the God of Norman is
definitely a Jewish God. As the Yiddish proverb says: “Man plans; God laughs.” In
Norman, God laughs through tears.
Norman opens today, April 21, at the Landmark
Century Center in Lincoln Park and the Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland
Park. For times and tickets, visit the Landmark Theatres Chicago website.
Norman is Joseph Cedar’s fifth film, and yes, I
have seen them all. For my reflections on Norman
in the context of Joseph Cedar’s career, see
my blog post (which contains additional photos).
Top Photo: Richard Gere as Norman Oppenheimer
on his way up an escalator. Photo by Chris Saunders.
Bottom Photo: Gere and Lior Ashkenazi as
Micha Eshel first set their eyes on “the most expensive shoes in all of New
York.” Photo by Niko Tavernise.
Photos courtesy Sony Pictures Classics