Less is more
TWO new releases coincidentally share a theme: the need for friendship and accommodation between Arabs and Israelis. The Adam Sandler vehicle You Don’t Mess with the Zohan handles the theme with a crudeness that is startling even by the very crude standards of contemporary Hollywood comedy, while an Israeli film, The Band’s Visit , is a model of restraint and subtlety. There are no prizes for guessing which will find the larger audience.
The Band’s Visit , a witty, elegant and deeply affecting film from first- time Israeli writerdirector Eran Kolirin, is about the need to break down distrust and enmity between Arabs and Jews. Cutting through the seemingly endless conflict between extremists and provocateurs on both sides, Kolirin introduces ordinary characters thrown together in unusual circumstances: Egyptians and Israelis who, after initial hostility and suspicion, discover they have quite a lot in common. It’s a profoundly humanist message, but the film transcends suspicions of glib liberal wish fulfilment thanks to the visual humour and elegance with which it has been made.
This is evident from the opening images. Eight members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Orchestra, in their smart pale- blue uniforms, are waiting patiently at an Israeli airport to be collected. Under the leadership of the benign yet stern Tawfiq ( Sasson Gabai), they have come to give a concert at the Arab Cultural Centre in the town of Beta Tikva, but there’s obviously been a breakdown in communication. The men, the youngest of whom is Khaled ( Saleh Bakri), are awkward, uneasy, far from their familiar surroundings and in enemy territory.
Tawfiq, proud and aloof, decides he will lead them to their destination without outside help, but unfortunately the bus they take drops them off at Peta Tikva, an extremely small desert community where most of the social activity centres on the cafe run by the supremely selfconfident Dina ( Ronit Elkabetz), who treats the displaced strangers with a mixture of disdain and compassion, leavened with a tart, cheeky sense of humour. There are no more buses that day, she explains, so she invites Tawfiq and Khaled to stay overnight at her apartment and finds accommodation among her friends for the other six.
The rest of the film depicts the breaking down of fear and suspicion. Visitors and hosts share a love of music ( a scene in which Arabs and Jews come together to sing Gershwin’s sublime Summertime is a memorable one), and Khaled, a ladies’ man, is able to assist his immature, socially inept Jewish friend Papi ( Shlomi Avraham) in the mysteries of courtship at a roller disco: a sequence that is both funny and touching.
Enhancing the gentle comedy is the precise and perfectly framed visual style employed by Kolirin and cinematographer Shai Goldman. Despite what was presumably a tight budget, the film transcends its limitations with the beauty and wit of its images, evoking the dry comedy of Finnish master Aki Kaurismaki. Impeccably acted, The Band’s Visit is an astringent tonic and a reminder that, sometimes, big issues can best be tackled through intimate human stories.
* * * ALTHOUGH You Don’t Mess with the Zohan ultimately has the same message as The Band’s Visit , Sandler and his director Dennis Dugan use the sledgehammer approach.
Sandler plays the title character, an Israeli soldier so adept at killing Arab terrorists that he attacks their bases singlehanded ( these scenes are supposed to be hilarious). Fed up with all the fighting, Zohan fakes his own death at the hands of a Palestinian strongman ( John Turturro, really slumming it) and moves to New York. There, he wants to become a hairdresser but spends most of his time having sex with grateful old women. He also falls in love with a beautiful Palestinian woman ( Emmanuelle Chriqui), who runs the salon where he works.
This is a comedy that so revels in its political incorrectness that when rival Arab and Jewish shopkeepers get together, all they can talk about is having sex with American political figures or their wives ( or daughters). The chief villain, a mercenary who hates Arabs and Jews ( and blacks, and just about everybody else) is portrayed as a Mel Gibson fan whose favourite movies include Lethal Weapon and What Women Want .
Occasionally the film is so bad it’s almost funny, if you think a scene in which a cat is used as a football is funny. When in doubt the filmmakers resort to the crudest jokes, ensuring a little of the Zohan goes a very long way.
* * * IN updating the 1960s Mel Brooks- Buck Henry television series Get Smart , which spoofed the James Bond films of the era, director Peter Segal and his team have wrought plenty of changes, notably making Maxwell Smart ( Steve Carell) quite a bit smarter. But the material, so steeped in Cold War sensibilities, doesn’t work as well today.
The action scenes, of which there are many, are rather routinely handled: the climactic race against time to save the US president from assassination during a concert of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy is a blatant rip- off of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Luckily the cast is excellent. Carell is an amiable hero with a sure sense of comic timing, Anne Hathaway is excellent as his resourceful sidekick, and Dwayne ( the Rock) Johnson is very funny as Control’s super- agent.
Even better are the actors in smaller roles: Alan Arkin as Control’s chief, Terence Stamp as smooth- talking villain Siegfried, and James Caan as the befuddled president who has difficulty pronouncing the word nuclear. These amiable actors elevate what may otherwise have been a rather ordinary exercise in nostalgia for audiences still fond of the bumbling Don Adams ( the original Maxwell Smart) and his misadventures.
Cultural exchange: Ronit Elkabetz and Sasson Gabai in a scene from The Band’s Visit