Sandler’s Zohan unites Arabs, Jews on streets of New York
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — The way Adam Sandler sees it, he just wanted to make a funny movie.
He doesn’t want either Jews or Arabs to get mad at him when You Don’t Mess With The Zohan makes its zany entry into theatres Friday. Instead he wants filmgoers to buy into the idea that Middle East politics — and particularly IsraeliPalestinian tensions — do have their funny side and that you can actually make a feel-good comedy out of them.
“My intention is never to hurt anyone,” Sandler insists, adding that he’s wanted to make this film for 10 years. “When we’re working our asses off on the script and making the movie, I’m just picturing people having a great time. The fact that anybody walks away saying, ‘Oh man, I wish they didn’t say that’ — it breaks my heart.”
At yesterday morning’s news conference, a restrained Sandler is showing little of the manic energy evident in his flamboyant performance in the film as Israel’s most famous counter-terrorist. This macho warrior — known far and wide as “the Zohan” — is as resourceful at satisfying the ladies as he is at dispatching his country’s enemies. He also nurses this bizarre dream of going to New York and becoming a hairtylist.
Which is why he eventually fakes his own death and flies to Manhattan as a stowaway in a crate which he shares with two hairy mutts. Once arrived, he launches a futile search for work in the city’s toney salons. They view him as something from another planet, but eventually he lands in a mixed Jewish-Arab neighbourhood where he manages to secure a job in a humble beauty parlour run by a sexy Palestinian immigrant played by Canada’s Emmanuelle Chriqui.
It’s there that he demonstrates more than just his prowess as a hairdresser — indeed, charismatic seducer that he is, he offers his elderly female customers a bonus service in the form of extra-curricular trysts in a back room.
Screenwriter Robert Smigel, whose friendship with Sandler dates back to their Saturday Night Live days, claims the aim was an equal-opportunity script:
“We tried to be equally offensive to all sides.”
At the same time, he and fellow writers Sandler and Judd Apatow didn’t want to go too far. “I would occasionally send scripts to ArabAmerican and Jewish friends, just to get a sense of — is this too much? Is it appropriate?”
And how will Zohan play in the Middle East? Will it ever get shown in a country like Syria?
Sandler’s pledge that it will definitely be in cinemas in Israel triggers a quip from co-star Rob Schneider.
“We don’t have the date for the Damascus premiere yet,” Schneider says sardonically. “We’re still in discussions with Sony Damascus.”
Schneider, another of Sandler’s buddies, plays a grumpy Palestinian cabbie who has emigrated to New York nursing a grievance against Zohan for stealing a goat from him back home. When he spots his arch enemy in Manhattan and realizes Zohan is still alive, he hatches a plot to eliminate him.
Such a scenario is not one in which brotherly love would normally triumph, but here Sandler is using comedy as a vehicle for preaching the possibilities of Jewish-Arab friendship.
As a Jewish kid growing up in America, Sandler worshipped the Israeli army and its resistance against terrorism. But this didn’t stop him from seeing the comic possibilities in all this.
“When I was a kid, I always heard about the Israeli army and this tiny little country and how everyone around them wants them gone and every time somebody comes after them, they take care of business. As a Jewish kid, you were proud of that: ‘All right, they are trying to take out the Jews and the Jews ain’t gonna let it happen.’ So I just admired them.
In the movie, both Arabs and Jews end up united against a common enemy — a predatory developer who wants to destroy their neighbourhood.
That’s one reason it appealed to Israeli actor Ido Mosseri who plays a young immigrant who helps the newly arrived Zohan find his feet in New York.
“I’m half Egyptian, quarter Polish, quarter Russian, but I’m 100 per cent Jew,” Mosseri says. “I think they’re really brave to hire an Israeli actor from Israel (but) they’ve been so kind to me. … I think the movie is really great. It has a great point of view, a humour point of view, about this conflict, the Arab and Jew conflict… and it laughs at each side with great humour and I’m honoured and proud to be a part of it.”
Chriqui, who plays the Palestinian girl who wins Zohan’s Jewish heart, says she kept having to put the script down because she was laughing so hard the first time she read it.
“I just absolutely wanted to be a part of it. I think to shed a little bit of light on a really bleak situation is what we do when people laugh at this movie. We were Arabs and Jews together making this movie, and we really bonded.”