LOS ANGELES (JTA) – 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 of an Israeli super commando-turned-New York hairstylist.
Co-script writer Robert Smigel says, “I wrote the Israeli characters as horn dogs,” 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 motor boat, bend opponents into pretzels, save burning buildings by spraying hummus on the fire and wipe out Hamas with his bare hands.
Zohan 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, he harbors a secret dream – to become a hairstylist in Manhattan.
The film opens June 6 in the United States and is scheduled for its Israeli premiere in mid-June. No Arab country has yet bid for the movie.
During a recent news conference, Smigel, four of the actors and director Dennis Dugan assured the media that beneath the fun and games 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 as a Jewish child, Israeli soldiers were his heroes.
Dugan said he wanted to explore “the ‘West Side Story’ of life.” Rob Schneider, who plays an aggrieved Palestinian, talked about “peace through laughter.”
The getting-along theme is apparent nearly from the start, as Zohan breaks the news about his career aspirations to his mother, played by the veteran Israeli actress Dina Doron.
“When will we have peace?” Zohan asks plaintively. “How much longer will we have to fight?”
His mother responds, “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 his nemesis, a wily terrorist who operates under the nom de guerre The Phantom.
The Phantom, played by John Turturro, wears dark shades, a glittering costume and gold teeth. Like Zohan, he speaks in heavily accented English.
Zohan finally breaks in at a Brooklyn salon owned by Dalia, an exquisite Palestinian girl played by French-Moroccan actress Emmanuelle Chriqui.
At a place patronized mainly by elderly ladies, Zohan makes a name for himself by employing the innovative technique of following each haircut with a special client service in the backroom – so vigorously that the whole salon shakes.
Word quickly spreads and soon long queues of mature ladies line up in front of the salon. Business becomes so good that Dalia is able to fend off the evil developer who wants to tear down her place.
The neighborhood is populated mainly by Israeli and Palestinian expatriates engaged in cab driving and various dubious enterprises.
Trouble looms when The Phantom, who now runs a Middle Eastern restaurant, reappears to settle scores with Zohan. However, Jewish and Arab supporters are busy building up their own businesses and are in no mood to resume the old battles.
In the end, the factions join hands against a common enemy. Take a guess what happens with Zohan and Dalia.
The film caricatures both Israelis and Palestinians, with plenty of material to offend both sides, though Arabs absorb slightly more insults.
An advance screening of the film produced some laughter, though less than one might expect given the plot line and the talented cast.
Sandler engendered snickers with the frequent barings of his backside, as well as his energetic servicing of the mother of a hospitable friend and the grandmotherly clients at the salon.
The picture is rated PG-13; perhaps we are fortunate to be spared the R-rated version.
“Zohan” features a cast of 175, including large contingents of Israelis and Palestinians. Refreshingly, actual Israelis and Palestinians portray themselves. 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, 30, a Tel Aviv native who has acted on stage and screen since he was 8. He 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 news 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 had made the NBA.”
Mosseri, who he says is “half Egyptian, one-quarter Polish and one-quarter Russian,” warmly praised Sandler as a “very giving guy.”
“He hugged me when we first met, and we played basketball together on the set,” Mosseri recalled.
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.”