Norman (2016): Huttner reflects on what we talk about when we talk about “Norman”

I am not just in love with Joseph Cedar's new film Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, I am ensnared and somewhat obsessed.

I have now seen Norman three times, first at a critic's screening in mid-March, then at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema on opening weekend in NYC (the night Joseph Cedar, Richard Gere and Lior Ashkenazi were all onsite for a post screening Q&A), and then back to the Lincoln Plaza on a weekday to take notes under the "Exit" light before writing my review for Chicago's JUF News.

Why go a third time? First because I wanted to make sure I had all my quotes right. That's the kinda gal I am. A homework-doing, conscientious Jewish gal just like "Alex" (the character played in Norman by Charlotte Gainsbourg). But also because Norman is the kind of film that gets better every time you see it. Cedar's screenplay is so dense and the implications are so vast that all you can really absorb on the first go is the mere tip of the iceberg.

For example, I began my review of Norman with a quote from a story by Sholem Aleichem. In “On Account of a Hat,” a rather pathetic wheeler-dealer finally negotiates a successful "transaction," but then it all goes bad, and he ends up a laughing stock. I have no idea if Cedar has ever read this story, let alone if he consciously planted bits of it in his screenplay. but the parallels are simply too close to ignore.

But while I talked a great deal about Ferris Wheels in my review (even quoting whole from Act One's intensely moving final scene), I did not have the space in my review to ask the pertinent question: Is this an allusion to the famous Ferris Wheel scene in The Third Man from 1949?

Cinefiles and most readers my age will know exactly which scene I mean. In our mind's eye, we are instantly high above Vienna listening to "Harry Lime" (Orson Wells) trying to convince his friend "Holly Martins" (Joseph Cotten) that his black market machinations are simply business as usual in a corrupt world. Harry is so charming, of course, that Holly despite all his common sense, wants to be convinced.

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 do.

I too do.

SPOILER ALERT: If you have not seen Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer yet, then please stop reading this post now. I hope you will see Norman and then return to read on, but I do not want to risk spoiling the experience of "tasting" this terrific film for yourself. So see first, analyze later.

With a tip of my hat to Nathan Englander, here are three things we must Talk About When We Talk About Norman:

1.) Corruption. We must talk about how insidious corruption is and how it starts with little things, often things so little that we barely notice them. In Norman, everyone is searching for one tiny key to a magic door. In the USA, this is called "networking;" in Israel (at least way back when I lived in Israel) it is called "protexia."

“Micha Eshel”(Lior Ashkenazi) understand this, which is why he knows he cannot buy the suit, even if he were to use his own money to purchase it. Even so, he can not erase the memory of how he looks in the suit because it burned itself into his brain when he looked at himself in this mirror.

This is why he turns his back on his wife "Naomi" (Tali Sharon) when she tells him to stop answering calls from Norman. He knows that, having gotten what she wanted from Norman, Naomi will now conveniently erase it from her mind, and convince herself that Norman's connections had nothing to do with her son's admission to Harvard Business School. But, of course, HBS has its own aims too. No doubt they will be happy to publicize that one of their new students is the son of the Prime Minister of Israel. (Forget the part about going AWOL from the Texas Air National Guard, and just ask yourself how George W. Bush was ever admitted to HBS in the first place?)

2.) The relationship between Israelis and American Jews

3.) The differences between man and women

© Jan Lisa Huttner (4/27/17) FF2 Media

Top Photo from Left: Lior Ashkenazi as Micha Eshel (in Jerusalem) and Richard Gere as "Norman Oppenheimer" (in Manhattan). Image cropped from the Israeli poster.

Middle Photo: Charlotte Gainsbourg as "Alex Green." Photo by Yaron Scharf.

Bottom Photo: First row from left: Dan Stevens as "Bill Kavish," Harris Yulin as "Jo Wilf," and Steve Buscemi as "Rabbi Blumenthal" at the AIPAL Conference. Photo by Yaron Scharf.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Q: Does Norman pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?


The only woman who plays a central role in Norman is Charlotte Gainsbourg as "Alex Green." Israeli actresses Neta Riskin and Tali Sharon also have well-crafted supporting roles as Micha Eshel's aide "Hanna" and Eshel's wife "Naomi," but these three women never talk to one another.

Norman takes place in a male-dominated universe. That's part of the tragedy of the dramedy.

BONUS Click here to read Pam Powell's interview with Miranda Bailey, an American producer who worked with Joseph Cedar for the first time: “Joseph Cedar’s work is filled with symbolism and innuendo that even I – having made the film – am still discovering. One thing I love is that I discover something new re-watching every scene.”

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2 Responses to Norman (2016): Huttner reflects on what we talk about when we talk about “Norman”

  1. Julie Rich says:

    Did drum Katz walk norman to the embassy knowing he was the unnamed businessman? And did he work for the Jewish embassy, how else would he be so exact in his copycat demeanor, playing on norman’s ego to win his confidence as Norman did with prime minister. I think he was as first suspected a spy for the embassy (but for norman’s enormous ego) would be fooled by the highest form of complement (flattering by copying)

    • So sorry, Julie. I only just noticed this message. My apologies. I assume your question is about the character of “Srul Katz” (played by Hank Azaria), yes? I believe that Srul Katz is a figment of Norman’s imagination. That is why he is onscreen at the very end, playing the piano in the park, as Norman eats the package of nuts. Or does he? In this magical film, we will never really know what actually happens & what’s imaginary… and that’s one reason I love it so much!

      One last thing just to be clear: The place you are referring to (“the Jewish embassy”) is actually the Israeli Consulate in Manhattan. The embassy of the state of Israel is in Washington, DC.

      Thanks much for comment & apologies again for my delayed response,

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