Adam Sandler’s comedies can usually be distinguished — if that’s the right word — by setups so improbable that they border on the ridiculous, from the re-education of a man forced to complete grades 1 through 12 (“Billy Madison”) to the sham gay marriage of two heterosexual firefighters (“I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry”). Yet his latest movie places him in what may be his most improbable scenario to date.
In “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” (opening June 6), Mr. Sandler plays an Israeli assassin who flees to the United States to become a hairdresser. Trailers for the film promise plenty of broad farce, physical comedy and at least one lewd dance routine. What the ad campaign for “Zohan” does not emphasize is that the film also attempts to satirize the continuing tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and provide humorous commentary on one of the least funny topics of modern times with a comedian who is not exactly known for incisive political wit.
If you’re already wondering what gives the “Zohan” crew the right to tackle such sensitive subject matter, well, so are they.
“I’m not sure we do have permission,” said Robert Smigel, one of the screenwriters and a longtime friend of Mr. Sandler’s. “But we thought it would be a funny idea.”
About eight years ago Mr. Sandler conceived of the Zohan character, an Israeli assassin who has been trained to hate and kill Arabs; exhausted by the ceaseless bloodshed, he fakes his own death and flees to New York to become a hairdresser. There he finds Jews and Arabs living together in grudging if not quite harmonious tolerance. . .
“Zohan” was divisive before a single frame was shot, when it was known in Mr. Sandler’s camp and around Hollywood as “the Israeli movie.” “Some people told me, ‘Don’t do it,’ just knowing the log line that they had heard,” said Dennis Dugan, the movie’s director, who directed Mr. Sandler in “Happy Gilmore,” “Big Daddy” and “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry”).
In hopes of forestalling criticism, the filmmakers sought actors of Israeli and Arab descent to play the many Mideastern characters in “Zohan,” and even opened a casting office in Israel.
Not surprising, they had little difficulty recruiting Israelis to play opposite Mr. Sandler. But finding Arab actors who would even audition for “Zohan” proved challenging, and some who worked on the film said they had initially been leery of appearing with Mr. Sandler, who is Jewish and supports Jewish charities and causes.
“Adam Sandler, in the Arab and Muslim communities, is not having a good reputation,” said Sayed Badreya, an Egyptian-born actor who plays one of Zohan’s adversaries in New York. “When it came to working with Adam, I was like, ‘Eh, well, I don’t know.’ My prejudice was bigger than me.” Mr. Badreya said he had been persuaded to reconsider, in part, by his teenage daughter, a huge fan of Mr. Sandler’s films. . .
For now, advocacy groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations are taking a wait-and-see attitude with “Zohan.” Given Mr. Sandler’s previous work, “I would say I’m a little worried,” said Ahmed Rehab, that organization’s national strategic communications director. He added that Mr. Sandler, like all artists, has a right to freedom of expression. (MORE)