Tuesday Talkback with Bob Kilker: Norman

NOTE: The discussion of Norman below contains some plot spoilers.

Joseph Cedar’s Norman, the Israeli director’s first American production, is a film that can easily take you by surprise.  Its trailer suggests a playful look at a charming conniver who is out of his depth.  Although there is truth to that description, it doesn’t quite encompass the film’s darkness or oddity.  The trailer’s written text offers some hints, acknowledging that the character of Norman is “a mystery” and offering the subtitle “The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.”  But the trailer’s music and depiction of Norman’s boundless optimism suggest a much lighter tone.  The audience for the Tuesday, May 23 screening of the film found itself divided on what to make of the film and its frustratingly enigmatic title character.

Before exploring that divide, I’d like to offer some plot summary for context.  Norman Oppenheimer is an aging New York fixer down on his luck and desperately trying to make profitable connections with powerful men.  His nephew aptly describes him as “a drowning man trying to wave at an ocean liner.”  He retorts that he is “a good swimmer.”  Amid some stalled attempts at networking, Norman meets an Israeli government official named Micha Eshel, who is looking to build an international reputation.  In an effort to ingratiate himself to Eshel, Norman offers to buy a $1200 pair of shoes that the politician had been coveting.  After that desperate gesture appears to lead nowhere, the film’s narrative jumps three years forward to Eshel’s becoming Prime Minister of Israel.  In his first official visit to New York as PM, he greets Norman with delight, raising his status and connecting him to a variety of influential figures throughout the city.  As his star rises, Norman makes increasingly untenable promises to arrange things for his new associates.  Meanwhile, Eshel finds himself under investigation for ethics violations that could topple his administration.  Norman turns out to be the prosecution’s key witness, if he can be made to testify against the Prime Minister.  Rather than betray Eshel, who has apologetically cut ties with his benefactor for self-preservation, Norman commits suicide.  Prior to doing so, however, he uses the inside information of Eshel’s exoneration to secure all of the promises he made to financial interests, his synagogue, the PM’s son, and his own nephew.   

Norman proved a fascinating if ultimately disheartening film, but the partially negative response from the audience stemmed not simply from its sad ending; rather, it derived from disbelief or confusion at the protagonist’s choices.  At first, however, Norman’s motivations seem all too recognizable.  He goes to great lengths to establish connections in the hopes that they will make him rich.  When Eshel becomes Prime Minister, Norman refers to that extravagant shoe purchase as his “greatest investment.”  The duo’s first conversation is filmed silently, the camera positioned inside the store with the shoes between the two characters as look at them through the plate glass window.  Their relationship is defined by the things that Norman can acquire for him.  That mercenary relationship, however, doesn’t appear to extend both ways.

As much as we’re led to believe that Norman seeks material gain from these connections, we never see concrete improvements in his lifestyle.  He wears virtually the same clothing in much of the film.  We never see his home, and it’s not entirely clear he has one.  He rubs shoulders with influential people, but he remains merely adjacent to success.  This imbalance in these friendships understandably led some audience members to question Norman’s motivations.  For one young woman, this ambiguity robbed her of pleasure.  How can you root for a character, after all, when you’re not really certain what they want? 

For other viewers, however, this uncertainty was part of the film’s charm.  The film was a mystery to be dissected rather than the story of a lovable underdog.  Was Norman ever really married?  Did he have a daughter?  What went wrong that made him so desperate at the film’s beginning?  Norman encourages this indulgence in mystery all the more by presenting a virtual doppelganger for the protagonist, not in appearance but in behavior.  Hank Azaria plays a man (perhaps only seen by Norman) who shadows him, offers his own strategic services (and a similarly vague business card) to the main character, just at the time that his plans are spinning out of control.  Is Norman losing his mind?  Is the ending just the fantasy of a man desperate for purpose and approval?  The film leaves these questions unresolved and the film is more intriguing for it.

Nonetheless, I share some of the frustration of the woman who left the film disappointed.  In my case, however, that frustration doesn’t stem from an inability to relate to the protagonist.  Despite his mysterious life, Norman seems all too recognizable.  Whether the film’s ending is real or not, I can understand the desire to feel important, to affect the world.  Norman relishes the idea that he can protect the Israeli Prime Minister, even at the cost of his own life.  My irritation with the film stems from my overidentification with Norman, not my bafflement at his loyalty.

When Norman kills himself (by eating almonds—to which he is fatally allergic—from a street vendor), he believes that his sacrifice is for a greater good.  The montage of those who benefit from his death, however, puts the lie to that hope.  We see a variety of characters enjoying the privilege won by Norman’s eternal silence.  Rich investors become even richer.  The Prime Minister’s son gets into Harvard.  Norman’s nephew can get married in the synagogue he’s been hoping for.  Even the ostensibly noble results of his death are compromised.  His rabbi’s synagogue is saved from demolition, but what we’re shown is the rabbi enjoying the new celebrity status afforded to him.  Finally, the Prime Minister basks in adulation from an appreciative audience.  Perhaps he finally achieved an elusive peace in the Middle East, but the film only depicts the glory of a man who has rationalized casting Norman aside. 

Like the best melodrama, Norman breaks my heart and raises my hackles.  I weep for a man who dies in the service of a privileged ruling class, and I rage at the awareness of those who are similarly exploited in the real world.

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