Tired of hunting down Arab terrorists, a burnt-out Israeli agent dreams of a normal life and goes to America to find it. But his past, and the seemingly interminable conflict, are never far behind.
We’ve seen this plot before, in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 “Munich,” and perhaps some Israeli films.
But this time it’s played totally for laughs. In Adam Sandler’s send-up of the age-old tale of battle fatigue and undying ethnic strife, he plays Zohan Dvir, a not-so-secret agent with absurdly masterful and legendary skills on the battlefield and in the bedroom who dreams of a more peaceful life. What’s the point of rounding up the usual suspects who will only be freed in prisoner exchanges, he wonders.
In a madcap romp packed with too many hummus gags and an unusual level of lewdness even for a Sandler film, Zohan fakes his own death in the hopes of making people “silky smooth” as a hairdresser in a New York salon. The film, which opens Friday, is a fusion of “Shampoo,” the 1975 Warren Beatty comedy, with doses of “Munich” and “Borat.”
But it is perhaps precisely because the film is so cartoonish, with every line and scene either a joke or the setup for one, that it could be viewed as marketable during the summer blockbuster season, where Jewish action heroes are hardly a staple.
“Adam’s the only reason a movie like this gets made,” Robert Smigel, who co-wrote the film with Sandler and Judd Apatow, told The Jewish Week. “He’s a proven box office star.”
Sixty years after authentic Jewish heroes beat back Arab armies to carve Israel out of the desert, Hollywood, with its numerous Jewish writers and directors, has never lacked for Jewish characters or storylines, but largely steered clear of presenting Jews who can hold their own in a gunfight or a street brawl.
“There’s no rush to have a Jewish superhero in a movie,” says Jami Bernard, an author and former movie critic for the New York Daily News. “What’s unsaid is that it would not be good box office, so why even try? Superheroes or charismatic good guys tend to be played by superstars who get locked into a certain kind of role, and none of them are going to lock themselves into a franchise in which they play a Jewish hero.”
Unlike some comedies with serious turns or hidden messages, “Zohan” seems to go out of its way to avoid substance. In one scene, a terrorist about to fire a rocket at Zohan gets into a mock dialogue with him about each side’s centuries-old claim to the Holy Land. “All I’m saying is it’s not so cut and dried,” says the Palestinian, just before Zohan kicks him over a balcony, then presents his rejoinder.
Ultimately, equally idiotic contingents of Israelis and Arabs join forces against a sleazy New York developer and find common ground, such as their mutual desire to “make sticky” with First Lady Laura Bush and Sen. Hillary Clinton.
Smigel insists there is a serious point or two in the film about the ability of Israelis and Arabs to coexist, at least in New York’s melting pot, far from the Middle East. “However goofy it is, the movie has a few subtle messages,” he says, quickly adding: “But at the same time, this is a guy whose crotch is stuffed with papier-mache and soft cheese.”
The origin of the film goes back to a 1990 skit Smigel wrote for “Saturday Night Live,” featuring Tom Hanks as a sleazy Israeli electronics salesman on the Sabra Shopping Network, and featuring Sandler in his first appearance on the show.
He based the skit on Times Square electronics stores that were perpetually holding going-out-of-business sales, figuring that as a Jew he had to be willing to make fun of Jews and Israelis if he was going to satirize other groups.
Years later, Sandler, who now has his own production company, recalled the skit and asked Smigel to come up with a script for his idea of an Israeli soldier who becomes a hairdresser.
“The initial idea was a Charles Bronson kind of guy, an army veteran, and being a hairdresser you don’t expect a guy like that to have the capacity to snap into action and kick the crap out you,” says the veteran comedy writer, who drew on his experiences with Israelis during summers at Camp Modin in Belgrade, Maine, to craft the character.
“I sort of came to understand the reputation that Israeli guys who were there had for being sexually … if not aggressive, then confident. I wanted to give that to the Zohan character.”
A script was completed in 2001, but shelved after 9/11, when the writers figured it was no time for Mideast jokes. Smigel continued writing for SNL and “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and performing with his puppet, Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog. Apatow worked on a Fox sitcom and Sandler made more movies.
In 2004, they began to resurrect the script as Middle East humor returned to public discourse.
“I started feeling almost a need to make the film because of the environment we live in,” says Smigel. “There’s darker subject matter now. The world is a more frustrating place than it was when we first wrote the movie. To some degree it helps to try and laugh and sometimes it’s cathartic. “
“Zohan” comes five years after another Jewish hero farce, “The Hebrew Hammer,” Jonathan Kesselman’s take on ‘70s Blaxploitation films.
But fans of truly heroic Jews on the big screen will have to wait for this fall’s “Defiance,” the epic by Edward Zwick about the Bielski brothers, who gave the Nazis hell in Belarus and saved hundreds of Jews. Based on the book by Nechama Tec, the film will star Daniel Craig, best known as the latest incarnation of James Bond.
It has been a long, dry spell since 1960, when Paul Newman played Ari Ben Canaan, a memorable, if fictional role as one of the first Israeli fighters in “Exodus,” and six years later Kirk Douglas played Mickey Marcus, an American colonel who fought for Israel’s independence in “Cast A Giant Shadow.”
While “Munich” was a big-budget action film about Israeli agents, the story, as written by Tony Kushner, made them ambiguous, almost anti-heroic, and in the eyes of some critics gives short shrift to the1972 Olympics massacre that precipitated the Israeli revenge mission, thus circumventing any outrage by the viewer.
The 2007 Peter Berg action film “The Kingdom” featured as a supporting character a Jewish FBI agent, played by Jason Bateman, whose religion has relevance to the main plot, about the investigation of a bombing in Saudi Arabia.
The best-known Jewish heroes, of course, still fly off the pages of the Bible, and for a time they were the stuff of filmmakers’ imaginations, too.
“Jewish action heroes really had their day in the kind of religious epics that Hollywood no longer produces, most famously associated with Cecil B. DeMille — both versions (1923 and 1956) of “The Ten Commandments,” and “Samson and Delilah in 1949,” says Dave Kehr, who reviews DVDs for The New York Times.
Smigel, who will continue to focus on comedy, says pluralism may soon turn the tide toward less traditional heroes in dramatic action roles.
“Our society is becoming so much more multicultural at this stage,” he says. “It would be nice to think that a hero of some kind of ethnicity like that would be possible, not on a tongue and cheek level, whether it’s a Jewish guy or Pakistani. If this were a first step, that would be a funny first step.”