Part Borat, part Bond, Adam Sandler brings Mossad to the silver screen

Brushing teeth with humous creates a cartoonish portrayal of Israelis.

sandler zohan 224 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
sandler zohan 224 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
From Cast A Giant Shadow and Black Sunday to Raid on Entebbe and Munich, Israel's secret "super spies" have been portrayed on the large screen in many guises. But nobody will think of the heroic sabra in the same way after witnessing the over the top, hairy chested, open-shirted persona that Hollywood A-lister Adam Sandler brings to Zohan, the Mossad agent at the heart of You Don't Mess With the Zohan, which opened in the US Friday. Falling somewhere between James Bond and Borat, Zohan is a swarthy, sexist Israeli with a thick Mediterranean accent, who is fed up with his violent life as an Israeli counterterrorist agent. Double click on screen below to watch trailer: He fakes his own death and flees to Brooklyn, where he sets out to realize his dream of being a hair stylist at a Paul Mitchell salon. And ironically, the Brooklyn neighborhood where Zohan settles incognito consists mostly of Israeli and Palestinian expatriates who have learned to grudgingly coexist. The farce with a message premise is par for the course for Sandler, a Saturday Night Live alumni turned Hollywood franchise, best known for cheap laugh yet sentimental films like Billy Madison (1995), Happy Gilmore (1996) and Big Daddy (1999), which have grossed millions. Entertainment Weekly's review, which gave the film a C+, says that "this proudly Semitic James Bond is good to his parents, good to the tawny, bikinied Tel Aviv girls who flirt with him, good to his Israeli comrades, and even good to the little Arab kids whose villages he's sometimes forced to disrupt on the hunt for terrorists. Everything he loves about his country is summed up in his love of humous; he even brushes his teeth with the stuff." The humous is just one of the qualities that Israeli actor Ido Mosseri - who plays Sandler's expat Israeli friend Uri - feels helped to create a reasonably accurate, albeit cartoonish portrayal of Israelis. "During the course of the script revisions and filming, Adam and the writers asked me a lot of questions about Israelis, their habits, their language, their clothes," Mosseri, 30, told The Jerusalem Post from New York on Thursday, the day after the film's Big Apple premiere. "But I know they had done a lot of their own research, and they had it down pretty well. I think they caught the funny habits of the Israeli characters, like the obsession with humous. They just accentuated those traits to make it funnier." Mosseri, primarily a theater actor who is currently playing Motel the Tailor in the Cameri Theater production of Fiddler on the Roof, told the Post he was astounded when he got the part in Zohan. "I went to two auditions, and they offered to fly me over to the States for a final round with Adam," he said. "But it was too short notice and I had to turn them down because of my commitment to Fiddler. I thought it would be the last I would hear from them. But a while later, I got a call from my agent saying they still wanted me, and I was able to meet Adam and the team in New York. "We did a reading together in his hotel suite and he told me right there that I got the part. I was ecstatic! "My character is an Israeli electronics shop owner, just trying to get by in New York. He's like so many Israelis who come to America to try to become someone and end up driving a taxi or working with a moving company. I really liked a scene in the store when I tell Zohan that I won't let him work with me because my store is a dream killer." Sandler recruited both Israeli and Arab actors to play supporting roles. But according to a New York Times article, Arab actors were reluctant to take on roles in a film that was nicknamed, in Hollywood circles, Sandler's "Israeli movie." "Adam Sandler, in the Arab and Muslim communities, does not have a good reputation," Sayed Badreya, an Egyptian-born actor who plays one of Zohan's adversaries, told the Times. But according to Mosseri, the Israeli and Arab actors quickly warmed up to each other. "At the beginning of the filming, there might have been a little tension with the Arab actors. But what we have in common is that we're all actors and very quickly, after a couple minutes of working together, we became friendly," he said. "We even created a 'peace' table on the set, a place where we would all sit and talk politics and life, in a very calm and respectful manner. And at the end of the shooting, we all took a fun, crazy trip together to Las Vegas. I think that in the end, despite being from different backgrounds, we all want the same things in life." While the film is couched in the Israel-Arab conflict, Sandler primarily dealt with the complex issues through satire and punch lines instead of pointing fingers, the reviewers wrote. In one scene, three Arab characters who have discovered Zohan's true identity and decide to target him, call a "Hizbullah Phone Line" for instructions on how to make a bomb. The recorded message tells them that the information is not available during peace talks with Israel, and are instructed to call back "as soon as negotiations break down." The Times article on the film states that Sandler is careful not to take sides, and that the film "mocks itself for making such perilous source material a subject for comedy." In the midst of a fight sequence, the characters debate the region's complex history of aggression and retribution, even as they continue to act it out. ("I'm just saying, it's not so cut-and-dried!" an assailant shouts as he falls off a balcony.) While the film, which opens locally on June 19, is unlikely to prompt Israelis and Arabs to step back and laugh at the ridiculousness of the realities of the Middle East, Mosseri thinks that, on a more modest scale, it may help American filmgoers learn about the faces and the humanity behind the conflict. Despite his outward flamboyance and arrogance, Zohan "is a character who's full of hope, who believes in himself and his dreams," he said. "I think the film captures that beautiful side of Israelis. And, of course, their funny side."