Recasting the Israeli male

ZOHAN offends both Israelis and Palestinians, though the Arabs absorb slightly more insults.

By TOM TUGEND / JTA
June 17, 2008 10:15
Recasting the Israeli male

sandler zohan 1 88 224. (photo credit: Courtesy)

LOS ANGELES - At age 60, when even the more virile tend to slow down, Israel has replaced Italy as the native habitat of the sex stud. That's the uplifting message from You Don't Mess With the Zohan, starring Adam Sandler in the title role. Co-scriptwriter Robert Smigel says, "I wrote the Israeli characters as horndogs," roughly translated as really, REALLY horny persons of either gender. The film's Zohan Dvir is Israel's super counter-terrorist agent, who can leap tall buildings, swim faster than a motorboat, bend opponents into pretzels, save burning buildings by spraying humous on the fire, and wipe out Hamas with his bare hands. He is also a great disco dancer, skilled chef, muscle man (shot on Tel Aviv beaches), and a nice Jewish boy who loves his parents. Yet, with all these accomplishments, Zohan harbors a secret dream - to become a hair stylist in Manhattan. As he breaks the news to his mother (veteran Israeli actress Dina Doron), Zohan asks plaintively, "When will we have peace? How much longer will we have to fight?" The mother answers him, "We've been fighting for 2,000 years, so it should be over soon." But not before Zohan has to match muscle and wits (sort of) with the mandatory nemesis, a wily terrorist who operates under the nom de guerre of Phantom. The Phantom, played by John Turturro, wears dark shades, has gold teeth and a glittering costume, and, like Zohan, speaks in a heavily accented English. The two antagonists pass the time playing paddleball with a hand grenade, which is when Zohan fakes his own death so he can sneak off to New York to fulfill his secret ambition. At first, the new illegal immigrant, who gained his hairstyling experience by perusing a 1987 Paul Mitchell catalogue, is repeatedly turned down, but he finally lands a job at a struggling Brooklyn salon as a floor sweeper. As luck would have it, the proprietor of the place, patronized mainly by elderly ladies, is Dalia, an exquisite Palestinian girl, played by French-Moroccan actress Emmanuelle Chriqui. Zohan, who has assumed the identity of Scrappy Coco, an "Australian," finally breaks into the profession through the innovative technique of following each haircut with a special client service in the back room, so vigorous that the whole salon shakes. Word quickly gets around, and soon long queues of mature ladies line up in front of the salon. Business becomes so good that Dalia can fend off the evil developer who wants to tear down her place. The Brooklyn neighborhood is populated mainly by Israeli and Palestinian expatriates engaged in cab driving and various dubious enterprises. When the Phantom, who now runs a Middle Eastern restaurant, reappears to settle scores with Zohan, trouble looms. However, both Jewish and Arab supporters are busy building up their businesses and are in no mood to resume the old battles. In the end, the factions join hands against a common enemy and each reader gets one guess what happens with Zohan and Dalia. ZOHAN CARICATURES both Israelis and Palestinians, with plenty of material to offend both sides, though the Arabs absorb slightly more insults. The film opened June 6 in the United States and is scheduled for its Israeli premiere on Thursday. No Arab country has yet bid for the movie. During a press conference with four of the actors, director Dennis Dugan and writer Robert Smigel, the participants assured the media that beneath the fun and games there was a loftier message. "Life would be easier if we all got along," said Sandler, acknowledging that his was not an entirely original thesis. He noted that growing up as a Jewish kid, Israeli soldiers were always his heroes. Dugan said he wanted to explore "the West Side Story of life," and Rob Schneider, who plays an aggrieved Palestinian, talked about "peace through laughter." During an advance screening of the film, there was indeed some laughter, though not as much as you might expect, given the plotline and the talented cast. There were somewhat more snickers as Sandler frequently bared his backside and energetically serviced the mother of a hospitable friend and various grandmotherly clients at the salon. The picture is rated PG-13, and perhaps we are fortunate that we were spared the "R"-rated version. Zohan has a cast of 175, and one of the refreshing features is that the large contingents of Palestinians and Israelis are played by the real thing. Extensive auditions were held in Tel Aviv and among the expat communities in New York and Los Angeles. One of the plum roles went to Ido Mosseri, a 30-year-old Tel Aviv native who has acted on stage and screen since he was eight. Mosseri plays "Oori," an Israeli expat in New York who becomes Zohan's sidekick and introduces him to the ways of the big city. During an interview following the press conference, Mosseri still couldn't believe his good luck. "Some of the best Israeli actors auditioned for the role," he exulted. "The last four months have been the best of my life. I feel as if I made the NBA." Mosseri, who, as he put it, is "half-Egyptian, one-quarter Polish and one-quarter Russian," had warm praise for Sandler as a "very giving guy; he hugged me when we first met, and we played basketball together on the set." In the film, Mosseri plays a clerk in a Brooklyn electronics store, in which the staff's sales techniques match the store's official name, "Going Out of Business." Apparently, the "can't we all get along" theme of the film rubbed off on the cast. "We Jews and Arabs ate together at the same 'peace table' and really became good friends," Mosseri said. "After the film wrapped, we all went on a 'creative' trip to Las Vegas." One of his new pals is Sayed Badreya, an Egyptian who has played small parts in Hollywood movies since 1979. For the past 20 years, Badreya explained, "I've had one line in every movie I've been in. It's been 'In the name of Allah, I kill you all.'" Mosseri returned to Israel after the movie to play Mottel the Tailor in the Cameri Theater production of Fiddler on the Roof.


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