June 12, 2008
Sandler and the Zohan
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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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