Jewish Journal

Sandler and the Zohan

by Tom Teicholz

June 12, 2008 | 2:33 pm

John Turturro, left, Adam Sandler and Emmanuelle Chriqui in "You Don't Mess With the Zohan." Photo by Tracy Bennett/Columbia Pictures

John Turturro, left, Adam Sandler and Emmanuelle Chriqui in "You Don't Mess With the Zohan." Photo by Tracy Bennett/Columbia Pictures

As everyone knows by now, Adam Sandler's "You Don't Mess With the Zohan" dives in where few comedies have gone before: The Middle East conflict between Arabs and Jews. Hollywood has a long tradition of preferring onscreen Jews to be Semitic-lite (or even better, portrayed by non-Jews such as Gregory Peck in "Gentleman's Agreement").

Sandler, however, pulls no such punches in "Zohan" -- Israel is Israel and Zohan's nemesis is a Palestinian terrorist -- there is no attempt to create fake countries or nationalities. For that alone, Sandler and Sony, the studio that financed the film, should be commended.

As to whether "Zohan" will advance the cause of peace in the Middle East and increase regard for Israel and Israelis in the world at large, even as Israel itself celebrates its 60th anniversary, that's hard to say. But face it: Given the results of peace negotiations thus far over the last several decades under American, Israeli and Arab regimes of the right, left and center, "Zohan" stands as good a chance as any.

One thing's for sure. If the film's opening sequence on the beaches of Tel Aviv, featuring one fetching, toned, tanned hedonistic beach beauty after another (many of them tattooed), doesn't boost tourism to Israel, I don't know what will. At the very least, it will raise the bar on Israeli beauty (and when I say "bar," I mean Bar Rafaeli).

Mostly, watching "Zohan," you will laugh. At times, you will be ashamed for doing so, given the crudeness or the simplicity of the joke, but you will laugh all the same (who knew hummus had so many uses and could be so funny?).

Sandler's Zohan, as you may know from the many ads and trailers, is Israel's greatest counterterrorism agent. Writing in The New York Times, A.O. Scott compared him to "a less anguished version of Eric Bana's character in 'Munich'" -- that may be so. (Although I was no fan of "Munich" -- I just didn't find the movie that funny -- I only laughed like twice.)

Zohan is unstoppable, undefeatable, a master of martial arts, able to catch a bullet with his fingers, punch through a wall, swim faster than a Jet Ski -- you get the idea.

But he is tired of war, tired of the fighting, tired of being Israel's go-to guy for missions against terrorists. What he wants is to pursue his dream: to style hair to make men and women look "silky smooth." While on a mission to capture the notorious terrorist, "The Phantom" (John Turturro), he fakes his death.

Zohan then travels to New York, where he is no longer famous and is ridiculed for his '80s-style clothes, hairstyle and love of disco. A fellow Israeli recognizes him (Iddo Mosseri, an Israeli actor), and at his lowest moment, Zohan is tempted to join him working in an electronics store. But his friend warns him away, saying the lure of electronic sales is too strong; it kills dreams.

Zohan gets a job instead at a salon run by Dalia, a Palestinian, played by Emmanuelle Chriqui (of "Entourage" fame), on a Brooklyn street where one side is Arab, the other Israeli and everyone, although distrusting the other, gets along.

Zohan boosts Dalia's struggling business by showering his attentions on her elderly clientele, using a technique pioneered by Zero Mostel in "The Producers." Disgusting and very funny.

All is good until Zohan is recognized by an Arab cab driver played by Rob Schneider, who rounds up his fellow Arab cab drivers. After first calling the Hezbollah hotline, which is out of service until negotiations break down again, they call the Phantom, now a successful fast-food operator in the Middle East, and tell him where Zohan works.

Along the way, "Zohan" is riddled with cameo performances and appearances by Shelley Berman, Lainie Kazan, Michael Buffer, Kevin James, Kevin Nealon, John McEnroe, Mariah Carey and even Los Angeles local luminaries, such as entertainment manager Guy Oseary, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Sid Ganis and Roni from Roni's Diner.

In the end, it turns out the bad guys are not the Israelis or Arabs but a Donald Trump-like developer who is pitting the Brooklyn Israeli and Arab residents against each other so that he can build a mall.

When the Phantom finally confronts Zohan in America, he confesses that he, too, has a dream: He wants to sell shoes, and Zohan encourages him, telling him that in the United States, Arabs and Israelis put aside their differences to live their dreams and get on with their lives.

A couple of weeks ago, at the press conference for "Zohan," Mosseri and Schneider talked about how the Israeli and Arab actors at first were suspicious of each other but eventually came to have lunch together at what they dubbed "The Peace Table," where they had long, personal and occasionally heated discussions on the Middle East, even as they developed friendships that culminated in a trip to Las Vegas. Only in America! (Perhaps the sequel should have Zohan pressed back into service to save Las Vegas during his bachelor party.)

The Zohan peace plan of living as Israelis and Arabs do in America has been dubbed by that well-known critic of Middle East policy, Daily Variety, as "simplistic." Maybe, but it is also very Sandler.

First and foremost, Sandler is an instinctual comedian. He looks to the nuggets from his own experience or belief system to fuel his comedies.

Born in 1966, Sandler is of a generation that has known Israel only as a superpower. As Sandler recounted at the "Zohan" press conference, as a kid, his impression was that Israel was this country that everyone wanted to destroy, but no one could -- they kicked ass.

So there was a generational difference in perspectives: His parents worried about Israel's survival; Sandler thought Israel's ability to triumph was cool. That schism is presented in the movie, and I'm not sure I've ever seen it on the screen before.

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