Joseph Cedar makes movies about people who are damaged and vulnerable, who move between worlds. It’s a dangerous place to be.
From his first feature film, “Time of Favor” (2001), through to the dueling father-and-son academics of “Footnote,” the Israeli writer-director has sympathetically assessed the condition of a series of emotionally needy protagonists struggling for attention in a hostile and indifferent world.
In his fifth film, “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer,” which opens Friday, April 14, Cedar enters a new realm. For the first time in his career he is working in English and with a globally known star, Richard Gere, in the title role. The result is a fascinatingly intricate, unexpectedly funny film that links an obsequious New York hustler with global moguls and a charismatic Israeli prime minister.
In doing that, “Norman” draws on a relatively unseen side of Gere, placing him in the unlikely company of those other Cedar heroes.
Inevitably you think of his breakthrough role as Julian in Paul Schrader’s “American Gigolo,” bringing a professional swagger to that part and to subsequent male-modelish roles in “An Officer and a Gentleman,” “Pretty Woman” and “Chicago.” Gere is actually a pretty good actor, but one often wonders if beneath the Armani-clad carapace of his handsome torso there is a human heart. As he has gotten older, he has actively sought out roles that highlighted his vulnerability, and “Norman” turns out to be a surprisingly deft choice.
“He read a draft of the script and said he wanted to do it,” Cedar said two weeks ago, toying with a cappuccino in an uptown café. “And it happened.”
Cedar readily acknowledges that the participation of a star like Gere was necessary in economic terms to get the film made, but he also feels that the presence of his male lead was also essential for the film to work on screen.
“The film needed someone like Gere to get away from that stereotype [of the weak, wheedling Jewish middle man],” Cedar said. “There was a long process of figuring out who the Norman he could create would be, and that process helped me.”
Norman’s real motivation obviously is the emotional satisfaction he gets in being “indispensable,” the small, barely visible cog in the well-oiled machinery of New York and the larger world.
Norman Oppenheimer, the film’s central character, is a sort of professional go-between, a fabulist who runs around New York, cell phone ever in hand, trying to bring together people and organizations that would otherwise never come in contact, all for a small finder’s fee. But as played by Gere, Norman’s real motivation obviously is the emotional satisfaction he gets in being “indispensable,” the small, barely visible cog in the well-oiled machinery of New York and the larger world.
One of his acts of not-entirely-disinterested generosity involves buying an insanely expensive pair of shoes for Micha Eshel, a young Israeli sub-minister played by Lior Ashkenazi (an actor who is sort of a younger, Israeli version of Gere). Three years later, Eshel becomes the Israeli prime minister and Norman suddenly is catapulted into the reality he has always imagined, but with unexpected complications that drag him into a more fraught and dangerous place than he would have ever contemplated.
Norman is thrown into a world of slick, coldly reflective surfaces, as Cedar plays with the idea of his characters’ damaged self-knowledge. The writer-director toys with split screen and multiple reflections to suggestion the chilly world in which international financiers (Harris Yulin, Dan Stevens) will be brought together with an ambitious Upper West Side rabbi (Steve Buscemi) and a truckload of scheming Israeli pols with the knives out for Eshel.
“There are hundreds of Normans in the real world. Behind every deal there’s this complicated human story, and their function is essential. Norman’s fee is well-earned.”
“Norman is the embodiment of Jewish traits that are sometimes prized and sometimes embarrassing,” Cedar said. “He absolutely needs to be involved in everything, And I needed to figure out why I’m emotionally connected so a person like him.”
In describing the role of a ubiquitous middle man like Norman, Cedar invokes the history of the Court Jew, the brilliant unofficial representatives of medieval and Renaissance European royals who could devise and secure deals for their princely patrons while leaving them a few layers of plausible deniability. Such men were the historical equivalent of Cedar’s film protagonists, often lethally exposed and seldom protected by their putative employers.
The problem, as Cedar said of Norman is that “he cannot afford to be offended by or angry at anyone.” Affronted by his social superiors, he must tell himself that no offense was intended, and as those reflective surfaces become literally more prevalent, Norman is forced metaphorically to see himself as he really is, a man caught in the middle with no one to save him.
“Everybody gets what they want, as long as Norman is eliminated,” Cedar said.
He paused, almost ruefully considering the plight of his fictional creation, then added, “There are hundreds of Normans in the real world. Behind every deal there’s this complicated human story, and their function is essential. Norman’s fee is well-earned.”