TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new film "Norman" was directed by Joseph Cedar, an Israeli filmmaker whose last two films, "Beaufort" and "Footnote," were both nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. "Norman" is in English and is set mainly in New York. It stars Richard Gere as a Jewish small time operator hoping to hit it big. John says that "Norman" boasts the wit, feeling and storytelling precision that's largely vanished from today's movies.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: I once went to hear a philosophy lecture about the difference between being and doing. I can't remember the arguments, which were all about language, but I do remember the speaker asking this, if you do something good for bad reasons, are you being good or bad? It's a question you may find yourself asking during "Norman," the mordantly funny new drama by Joseph Cedar, the crack Israeli filmmaker whose previous film, "Footnote," was a brilliant comedy about the rivalry between father and son Talmudic scholars in Jerusalem.
Working for the first time in English, Cedar has created an ironic fable about an insignificant guy who yearns to be a player. When we first see Norman Oppenheimer, magnificently played by Richard Gere with tousled grey hair and a slight hunch, he seems like a successful businessman in his camel's hair coat. But we soon grasp that Norman's actually an operator, who, though basically well-meaning, is forever on the make. Prowling the streets of New York City, he tries to cobble together dodgy deals involving Israeli tax credits. And he traffics in personal connections he doesn't have.
He's annoying. And not surprisingly, the real power brokers flee him. But things change when he meets a bigwig who doesn't know him. That's Misha Eshel, a visiting Israeli deputy minister of trade, played with amusing panache by Lior Ashkenazi. Thrusting himself in Eshel's path, Norman tries to finagle them both into a dinner party at the home of a Jewish tycoon played by Josh Charles, then winds up buying the deputy minister a $1,000 pair of shoes, a purchase Norman can't afford.
Except three years later, Eshel becomes Israel's prime minister, and he remembers those shoes. After giving Norman a huge public embrace, Eshel declares him his personal go-to guy in New York City. Suddenly, the outsider is an insider. But because Norman can't stop boasting and scheming and promising, we sense he's destined for a terrible fall. Here, as the walls start to close in, Norman tries to wangle his nephew, played by Michael Sheen, into helping him get the prime minister's kid into Harvard.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NORMAN")
RICHARD GERE: (As Norman Oppenheimer) Thanks for coming down, really. I appreciate it.
MICHAEL SHEEN: (As Philip Cohen) You're acting like a maniac. Look at you. Why are you getting involved? This thing is bad for Israel, bad for America, bad for Jews, bad for everybody. Step away. Step away.
GERE: (As Norman Oppenheimer) You're right this is bad for everybody. That's why I want to help. That's why...
SHEEN: (As Philip Cohen) How can you help? This is a political war going on 7,000 miles from here. Eshel's rivals have found this cockamamie story, and they're going to use it to take him down. There is nothing you can do about it. Don't get involved. It's too big.
GERE: (As Norman Oppenheimer) Just this one thing, though, one thing. Just hypothetically, look, if this guy, this businessman, he comes to you for advice, he wants you to represent him, what are you going to tell him?
SHEEN: (As Philip Cohen) You want to approach him? That's a bad idea.
GERE: (As Norman Oppenheimer) No, no, no. I'm just thinking maybe we can come up with an option for him that's not so harmful to Eshel.
SHEEN: (As Philip Cohen) I'd throw him out of my office. That's what I'd do. I wouldn't want anything to do with him. He is a threat to a sitting prime minister. But even if it doesn't end up having any criminal implication, OK, apparently his dealings with Eshel are embarrassing enough so that his political rivals think they can use him to hurt Eshel. Eshel's people can't ignore that. They have too much to lose. They're going to strike back, and you want to avoid him like the plague.
POWERS: Cedar was born in New York. His family moved to Jerusalem when he was 6, and his film moves comfortably between New York's Jewish community and Israel's ruling class. Deftly sketching its elaborate skein of religious, financial and political relationships. It's an elaborate network of debts and favors, friendships and rivalries that connects everyone from Norman's rabbi, nicely played by Steve Buscemi in a bit of consciously witty goyish casting to an Israeli justice agent played by Charlotte Gainsbourg to a pushy street hustler played by Hank Azaria who is Norman's seedier alter ego.
Perhaps because Cedar is from Israel whose artists are less shy than Americans about tweaking Judaism and Israeli life, he tells Norman's story without worrying whether it's good for the Jews, to quote the classic phrase Sheen's character actually uses. Cedar cheerfully skewers Israeli politics and its emotional relationship to American Jewry in a way that U.S. directors dare not. And Micha Eshel - he offers up an Israeli leader whose friendliness can't mask his vanity, shallowness and self-promoting ruthlessness, nor does Cedar worry that Norman might play into anti-Semitic cliches.
This isn't simply because he is an actor as handsome and charming and gentile as Gere to play him. It's also because Cedar knows that if Norman is a type familiar in Jewish culture, this means he's a Jewish version of a human type. We all know someone like him. Business and politics are crawling with Normans, fantasists who puff themselves up, brag about knowing people they've barely met, offer to do favors they can't deliver and dream of a big score that never comes.
Far from mocking or hating Norman, Cedar clearly identifies with him. He gets us rooting for this lonely, desperate man who caught in surroundings that visually feel claustrophobic, spends his life trying to keep from falling off a treadmill that his own actions make go faster and faster. Early on, Norman flags down a jogging acquaintance in hopes of meeting his ultra rich boss. As the guy tries to brush him off, Norman tells him good things come in surprising ways. It turns out that he's right. "Norman" builds to a dazzlingly regulatory ending, one that's as elegantly constructed as its hero's life is messy.
GROSS: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and vogue.com. He reviewed the new film "Norman." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, how and why dictionaries define crude or offensive words like F-bomb and the N-word. Our guests will be Kory Stamper an associate editor at Merriam-Webster. We'll also talk about adding new words.
KORY STAMPER: I added bodice-ripper to the dictionary.
GROSS: Oh, really?
STAMPER: That's one I added (laughter).
GROSS: Stamper writers about her work as a lexicographer in her new book "Word By Word: The Secret Life Of Dictionaries." I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.