Jewish Journal

Sandler and the Zohan

by Tom Teicholz

Posted on Jun. 12, 2008 at 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. To write a think piece about Sandler may sound, at first, like a contradiction in terms -- not unlike "jumbo shrimp" or "military intelligence" -- but understanding who Sandler is and where he comes from goes a long way toward explaining his success.

Sandler was born in Brooklyn to Judy, a nursery school teacher, and Stanley, an electrical engineer, according to IMDb.com. At age 5, the family moved to Manchester, N.H.

Being Jewish in Manchester must have been a special experience, since it inspired the comic mind not only of Sandler but also fellow Manchester resident Sarah Silverman. It also seems to be have inspired Sandler's 2002 landmark venture into animation, "Eight Crazy Nights" (the first-ever feature animated Chanukah movie).

Sandler began performing stand-up comedy while at New York University. He also nabbed a recurring role on "The Cosby Show" in 1987 as Theo's friend, Smitty. Once on the comedy circuit, he moved to Los Angeles, where he roomed with Judd Apatow.

Dennis Miller recommended Sandler to Lorne Michaels, who hired him for "Saturday Night Live" in 1990. It was on "SNL" that Sandler first met both Schneider and Robert Smigel. And as Smigel revealed to my colleague, Jay Firestone, in these pages, Sandler's first "SNL" sketch was a spoof of Israeli hard sell, called "The Sabra Shopping Network." It was written by Smigel, whom Sandler would tap to write "Zohan" with him and Apatow.

Sandler left "SNL" in 1995 to pursue a film career. "Billy Madison" and "Happy Gilmore," for which he shared writing credit, followed soon thereafter, establishing Sandler's popularity. The 1998 film, "The Waterboy," was Sandler's first to pass the $100 million mark, establishing him as a bankable comedy superstar.

Over the last decade, Sandler has produced or starred in more than a dozen films and shared writing credit on a handful. Yet if you ask most people, they hark back to the movies early in his career, such as "Happy Gilmore" or "The Wedding Singer," as having cemented his image as a sweet, emotional, vulnerable cretin savant.

Yet many people I know between the ages of 15 to 30 don't seem particularly interested in Sandler or in this movie. They tell me they used to like his movies -- now they're not sure. His humor, they say, seems too old-fashioned (I think the word they are looking for is schmaltzy).

The humor they like is more deadpan, like "The Office" or "Flight of the Conchords." They like Apatow's movies, and although Apatow has a writing credit on this one, they perceive this movie as different.

I'm not worried for Sandler. As Sony is well aware, since "The Waterboy," almost all the movies that Sandler produces and stars in perform reliably in the $120 million to $135 million range, according to Box Office Mojo, and often better, and that includes movies you might not think of as successful, such as "The Longest Yard" ($158 million), "I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry" ($120 million), "Click" ($137 million) and "Anger Management" ($135 million).

The only exception is "Little Nicky" ($39 million). In its first weekend, "Zohan" came in second in the box-office race, earning an estimated $40 million, behind only an animated panda.

That being said, it is important to point out some differences between the Apatow and Sandler oeuvres.

Apatow's movies are grounded in reality, fueled by embarrassing or awkward moments that have happened or could happen in real life. Many of the films associated with Apatow, such as his "Knocked Up" or Seth Rogen's "Superbad" or Jason Segal's "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" (co-produced by Apatow), feature nice Jewish boys who are ambition-challenged, pot-smoking and untoned (what's the opposite of "buff"?) but who get the girl -- usually a far more beautiful girl than anyone would ever imagine they could win.

"Zohan" subverts this paradigm. Sandler's Zohan is a man's man -- hairy, comfortable grilling fish in the nude (Apatow has made a crusade of male nudity, and this may be part of his contribution to "Zohan"). That being said, Zohan is no nebbish. He is used to being the best at everything and to being irresistible and so comfortable with himself that sex is just another physical prowess about which he is nonchalant (until he falls in love).

Dalia, the girl he falls in love with, is not unreachable, she's just not Jewish, and a Palestinian to boot. But given that she, too, is tired of the fighting -- and even drinks Israeli soda -- they fall in love, and in keeping with Hollywood traditions from "The Jazz Singer" on, his parents approve.

Speaking of parents, Sandler confessed that his own parents seem pleased with him. As Sandler made clear at the "Zohan" press conference, he was raised in a Jewish home. His wife is Jewish, his child is Jewish (at his wedding, Sandler's dog walked down the aisle wearing a kippah, so perhaps his dog is Jewish, as well).

Sandler's stance toward his Judaism seems much like Popeye's credo, "I am what I am." It is an attitude that has served him well.

Sandler's instinct that comedy was to be found in mocking Israeli stereotypes and the conflict between Arabs and Jews may not earn him an Oscar or the Nobel Peace Prize. But "Zohan" brings these topics to the mainstream in a way that will have many, many people laughing.

In this way, Sandler is hewing to a long Jewish tradition that has always chosen laughter over tears in the face of seemingly insolvable adversity. Funny, that.

One of the 'Zohan' trailers

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.

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