June 11, 2008

I”€™m not a great fan of Adam Sandler who always seems to be doing an impersonation of Jerry Lewis, whose shtick as a juvenile retard I had enjoyed until about the age of…mm…six? I saw Sandler last time in “€œ50 First Dates, a movie that I actually liked (it’s a less sophisticated and funnier take on “€œMemento“€), but I do my best to avoid his films. But his new “€œYou Don’t Mess With the Zohan“€ was supposed to have some sort of a political message relating to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and I”€™m interested in these topics, so I decided to give the guy another chance. And since my expectations from Sandler and “€œZohan”€ had been very, very low, I wasn”€™t disappointed at all.

First, something about the “€œplot”€ of this film which was conceived by Robert Smigel, the guy who is responsible for “€œSaturday Night Live”€’s “€œ TV Funhouse“€ and “€œThe Ambiguously Gay Duo,”€ and Judd Apatow, who among other films, has produced “€œThe 40-Year-Old Virgin“€ and “€œKnocked Up.”€ The two have never been accused of suffering from a lack of bad taste. “€œIt’s so gross,”€ is the common reaction of those who watch their productions that are usually populated by oversexed teen-agers between the ages of 12 and 50 (think Bill Clinton in the Oval office) who engage in various forms of sexual activity with men, women, and other living creatures. Their exceptionally lowbrow humor is very mean and crude and consists of a lot of unfunny penis jokes and scatological references, while their politics mirrors the fantasies that are so common among the creative minds in Manhattan’s West Side and Hollywood. Imagine Larry David directing the “€œThe Three Stooges“€ in a remake of “€œDeep Throat. You get the idea (and it’s actually worst than you imagine).

Smigel and Apatow are Jewish and that supposedly “€œpermits”€ them to mock and ridicule Jews, as well as Christian, Muslims, and the rest of humanity, and to use stereotypes of Jews, especially those of Jewish women, in a way that would have led to charges of anti-Semitism if, say,  Mel Gibson had done it (in the same way that seems to be okay if Chris Rock uses the “N” word). In this film, Smigel, Apatow, and Sandler decided to extend the reach of their “€œhate humor”€ beyond the East and West Coasts to the Middle East”€”and zoom for a change on their Israeli brothers and Arab cousins.

There was a time American-Jews were fantasizing about the Israeli soldier Ari Ben Canaan played by Paul Newman, a mythical, super-brave and very blond and Aryan looking King-David-like Sabra who protects his people against the Nazi-like Arabs and gets to seduce the blond Shiksa, Eva Marie Saint. But Ari Ben Canaan doesn”€™t live there”€”in Israel”€”anymore. Instead, Zohan lives here. And he is no Ari Ben Canaan. In fact, Zohan and his Arab adversary seem to be a mirror image of each other, the hero ends up marrying his enemy’s Arab sister. And most important, Zohan is not Zion’s answer to Albert Einstein but to John Holmes. He is the world’s Biggest Erection (Is Smigel projecting some personal insecurities here? Interestingly enough, in Portnoy’s Complaint Philip Roth’s character cannot sustain an erection in Israel.)

We first meet Zohan as the leader of Israeli special operations/commando unit who looks and sounds like a cross between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Howard Stern, a brutal killer of Arabs and other human beings, an owner of a very tiny brain, who is apparently blessed with a huge “€œendowment”€ (which is quite obvious to any naked eye surveying his crotch) and a well-matched libido, God’s gift to Jewish women everywhere. And perhaps to men also? That’s is at least what his parents suspect when Zohan shocks them with the admission that he is kind of tired fighting Arabs and that he plans to leave the Holy Land and move to the Diaspora in New York where he would be able to finally fulfill his dream”€“to become a hairdresser at the famous Paul Mitchell hair salon, where he would cut “€œsilky smooth”€ hair (in fact, he carries a 1977 Paul Mitchell catalogue with him to every commando raid).”€œYou”€™re faigeleh!”€ observes a mortified Jewish father. Well, Zohan ego is deflated because he is an ambiguously flaming heterosexual, and after the response from mom and dad, he decides to fake his own death in the hands of his archrival, the terrorist leader called the Phantom, who is played by John Turturro with a Kafiyyeh and a lot of gold teeth (who looks and sounds like a cross between John Turturro and Eminem) and Homeland Security or not, he is JFK and on his way to the Big Apple where he lands a job at a hair salon owned by a so, so cute Palestinian woman, Dalia, (Emmanuelle Chriqui) where he succeeds in attracting a huge clientele consisting mostly of New York’s ugliest female senior citizens who overrun the place with their walkers and wheelchairs, hoping that the Zohan would bang his exploding crotch against their wrinkly faces. Yep. I told you. It’s groooss. (And let’s not forget the scene when Zohan has sex with Lainie Kazan in front of her teenage son).

And the movie that started as a postmodernist/post-Zionist “€œExodus“€ with a touch of “€œMunich,”€ continued as “€œShampoo,”€ ends with a Middle Eastern version of “€œWestside Story“€”€”but with a happy finale. As you probably guessed, Zohan and Dalia”€”we discover that she is the sister of the Phantom”€”fall in love. And through their not-very-moving romance (Zohan promises Dalia that his you-know-what would only serve her needs) they help bring peace between Israeli and Arab gangs in the Bronx. The peace-loving Middle Eastern immigrants find out that their wars were incited by a very WASPy real-estate billionaire and his gang of Rednecks (who as Zohan’s nigh goggles warn him hate: Blacks. Jews. Arabs, Moslems. Vegetarians. Whole Food. The New York Times. The Charlie Rose Show.  Gays.)  The despised WASP wants to turn the colorful=dirty neighborhood in the Bronx into an ugly shopping mall, but Zohan working together with the Phantom foil the plot and kill the greedy WASP and stupid Rednecks, and then everyone lives happily ever after, because people, I just want to say, like you know, can we all get along?

That’s the political message à la Sandler, Smigel, and Apatow: Middle East 101 for Morons on Crack. And I know what you are thinking? “€œHey, it’s just a stupid movie. Let’s not over-intellectualize it!”€ But these guys do seem to take themselves a bit too seriously. “€œThe people living in conflict in the Middle East are the same people living in one neighborhood in New York”€”except that while there may be rivalries in Gaza, they don’t hate each other in Brooklyn,”€ according to the movie’s director Dennis Dugan, lecturing journalists in a Hollywood news conference. Everybody, like, you know, just gets along. “€œThey treat each other more as people than as rival factions,”€ explained Hollywood’s Son of Bernard Lewis. And “€œit not as crazy as it sounds,”€ Dugan concludes. Duh. It is! And this from Turturro/the Phantom: “€œZohan is faking his death, but little does he realize that the Phantom also has his own dreams of not fighting anymore.”€

Based on his experience making “€œZohan,”€ Smigel seems to have come up with his own ideas for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. Bye, bye, Dr. Kissinger. Hello Dr. Phil. “€œOne of the great things on the set”€”and we didn’t do this intentionally”€”was that we had many scenes that involved all the Arab guys and the Israeli guys in the same scene, meaning they were all called to the set together,”€ Smigel recalled. “€œEveryone would be eating lunch together. They had a lot of passionate discussions, but it was very friendly, very healthy, very open-minded. It was really cool to see”€”some of the guys have said to me that it’s the most they’ve every talked to an Arab or an Israeli before.”€ And toward the end of the shoot, Smigel heard from some of the actors that they’d grown up hating or mistrusting all Israelis or all Arabs until they came to make the film. “€œThey actually said the shoot was a life-altering experience,”€ added Smigel. Yep. If only Smigel and his liberal American-Jewish buddies would replace our favorite neoconservative cabal And that is actually not such a bad idea. Unlike Wolfowitz, Smigel does have a sense of humor!


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