Which pretty much describes “Norman” itself. It’s only after the plot has unfolded, with antic elegance and brazen unpredictability, that the risks involved become apparent. The dangers are everywhere: overly broad humor; obnoxiously shticky performances; sentimental tribalism; easy moral point-scoring. None of them materialize. It’s startling, given how much farce is on display — in the rise-and-fall structure of the narrative; in the madcap scenes of narrowly missed (or fully achieved) catastrophe; in the play of mistaken and forged identities — how much genuine feeling also comes through.
It’s less that Mr. Cedar blends realism with absurdity than that he refuses to acknowledge any distinction between them. Norman, who strides through Midtown in a tweed cap and a camel coat, connected to the world through the earbuds of his iPhone, is an utterly plausible denizen of a city on the move. He is also a nearly mythical figure, a creature sprung from the annals of Jewish literature. You will encounter his ilk — losers, strivers, hucksters and dreamers — in the novels of Saul Bellow and the stories of Franz Kafka and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Also in the films of Mel Brooks and the Coen Brothers. At one point, Norman meets his own double, in the shambolic person of Hank Azaria.
Strictly speaking, Norman is a con artist, a spinner of exaggerations, half-truths and outright lies. This may be the source of Micha’s affection for him: this future prime minister can produce his share of seductive rhetorical vapor, and the two men also share an evident and endearing insecurity. They want to be liked, to matter not just in public affairs but to the people around them.
And there is something almost selfless in Norman’s hustle. He doesn’t want wealth or power as much as he longs for proximity to them, for entree into a world where important things happen. He calls himself a businessman or a consultant, but he is really running a kind of social pyramid scheme, promising extravagant returns on small investments of kindness and courtesy.
He almost succeeds. Or maybe — to give away as little as I can — he does succeed. Only at the very end, with thrilling subtlety and impressive clarity, does a fable blossom from the satirical earth. To put it another way: This is a rare Jewish joke in which the punch line lives up to the delivery.