Norman and Micha stand in a shop window looking at shoes
Norman (Richard Gere), left, with Micha (Lior Ashkenazi) in Joseph Cedar’s tragicomedy. (Courtesy/Sony Pictures Classics-Niko Tavernise)

‘Norman’ digs at complicated dynamic between Israelis and U.S. Jews

The marvelous tragicomedy “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” depicts an aging, desperate Jewish influence peddler who’s survived in a shark-eat-minnow world with smooth patter that blends alleged connections with half-promises.

Through manipulation, charm and luck, Norman (a poignant Richard Gere) devises a rendezvous with a minor Israeli deputy minister (Lior Ashkenazi) at loose ends in the Big Apple. In the unlikely confines of an upscale shoe store, they forge a connection that will have profound ramifications for both men — for better and for worse.

The film, which opens Friday, April 21 in San Francisco, marks the first movie that acclaimed writer-director Joseph Cedar shot in his birthplace, and in English. The New York-born Cedar grew up in Israel from the age of 6, returning to New York to earn his degree in film at NYU. He then established himself as one of Israel’s finest filmmakers with a pair of Academy Award nominations for best foreign language film, for “Beaufort” and “Footnote.”

The soft-spoken Cedar allows that he’s exceptionally familiar with both sides of the complicated dynamic between Israel and American Jews.

“It’s a messy relationship, which from my point of view justifies the film,” he says with a wry smile during a recent interview in San Francisco. “There’s something fascinating about what Israelis think of Americans and what they expect from Americans, and how Americans view Israel, how they view Israelis and what Israel is for their identity. All these things are a big part of my conversations, so the movie allowed me to touch some of the things that are vital to my life.”

Cedar has a simple explanation for some of the curious behavior that takes place at high-level meetings between the countries, illustrated by a scene where Ashkenazi’s character, Micha Eshel, now a figure of greater importance, lectures a U.S. diplomat visiting his Washington, D.C., hotel suite.

“One of the things that will explain so many of the encounters between Israelis and American politicians is that every time they show up they’re in jet lag,” Cedar says. “Especially around AIPAC, Israelis come to America, they’re treated like they’re Caesar and they’re a little off-balance because their time zone is all messed up. And they still have to be awake for Israeli things, so they’re sleep-deprived.”

This is the nucleus of what the relationship is about: Americans gift Israelis. I’m trying to understand it; I’m not introducing it.

Some viewers may presume a key plot twist in “Norman” was inspired by the gifts that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu allegedly received from the Israeli Hollywood tycoon Arnon Milchan. But Cedar finished shooting his film before that story broke early this year.

“That relationship, of an American Jew gifting an Israeli politician, that’s not something new and it’s not something Bibi [Netanyahu] invented, and it’s not going to go away after Bibi is in jail. Or after [Ehud] Olmert is in jail,” Cedar says.

“This is the nucleus of what the relationship is about: Americans gift Israelis. I’m trying to understand it; I’m not introducing it. Everyone knows that that’s what it is.”

The encounter between Norman and Micha in the shoe store — on which the movie turns — is Cedar’s inspired way of conveying the complicated personal and moral aspects of any transaction between Americans and Israelis.

“All the meetings between Norman and Eshel helped me understand this relationship, and helped me understand this on an individual, human level not on a geopolitical or policy side,” Cedar explains.

Cedar also viewed Norman’s character and fate through another prism, that of the so-called “court Jews” of past eras.

“There’s a set of characteristics of that personality that I’m attracted to,” he says. “I identify with the need to get into a close circle of power, and then the tragedy of being ultimately kicked out because you have no substance on your own. You have no safety net, no one is there to protect you, you don’t have an interest that someone else needs to protect.”

Cedar injects notes of levity and absurdity into Norman’s saga, which stem from the director’s appreciation for the long tradition of movie characters looking bad for our amusement.

“Norman is a little less naive and he is not as pure as [Charlie Chaplin’s] Tramp, but it’s the same kind of situations of pushing yourself into places where you’re not invited and being kicked out,” he notes.

Though Gere is not an actor one associates with embarrassment and pratfalls, he is extremely effective here playing a man trying to retain his dignity amid impending disaster.

“There’s something about Norman that I thought might connect to this primal need of moviegoers to see someone make a fool out of himself, to humiliate himself more than most people are willing to humiliate themselves,” Cedar says.

And there’s another element of Norman’s character that Cedar himself shares.

“It’s being essential to something,” he says. “Norman feels if he’s not essential to other people’s projects, then he has no existence. So his whole motor is, ‘How do I become essential to others? How do I create a situation where people are dependent on me?’ I identify with that because I have that. It’s part of me.”

“Norman” opens Friday, April 21 at the Landmark Clay and Century 9 in S.F. and April 28 at theaters throughout the Bay Area.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.