If you’ve seen the trailer for Adam Sandler’s new movie You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, it may be tempting to write it off as yet another low-brow comedy aimed at fifteen-year-old boys and best avoided by everyone else. But wait. After Hollywood’s recent spate of dour axe-grinding films about Iraq, a fun movie featuring an Israeli counter-terrorist as the protagonist is a refreshing change, even if it is no more serious or realistic than a cartoon.
Sandler plays Zohan, an elite Israel Defense Forces commando who feels no pain, can do push ups with no hands, and can catch bullets fired at him in his nostrils. He’s a superhero, basically, and his oddly likable Palestinian nemesis (“the Phantom,” played by John Turturro) is an equally indestructible comic book arch-villain who also feels no pain and can defy gravity. Zohan’s trouble is that he’s tired of chasing bad guys, even though he’s very good at it. He would rather live in the United States and work in a hair salon. So he fakes his own death and smuggles himself to New York to get away from it all and live the American dream. There’d be no movie, though, if it were that easy. Zohan is spotted by a Palestinian taxi driver, and buffoonish Arab terrorist wannabes plot to take down the Zohan at his place of employment.
The film’s lead actor and co-author is a Republican, but of the Rudy Giuliani-supporting “South Park Republican” variety. Andrew Sullivan coined the phrase after South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker outed themselves as irreverent anti-leftists a few years ago. Matt Stone is a registered Republican, and Trey Parker famously said “I hate conservatives, but I really f***ing hate liberals.”
This, then, is no Mel Gibson movie. Gibson’s politics, in fact, are swiped at in this movie. No cultural conservative could possibly have written You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. Sandler’s character becomes the most sought-after hairdresser in New York City because he joyfully includes sexual favors for senior citizens as part of his salon service package. At no point in the film is there even the slightest suggestion that there’s anything wrong with promiscuous sex or brazen prostitution.
There’s a seriousness, though, beneath the surface of what is otherwise a ridiculous and crude cartoon with live actors. Israelis are portrayed as the good guys, which is not exactly what might be expected from Hollywood these days. Jokes are made at their expense, but the humor is not politically charged. Zohan brushes his teeth with hummus, for instance. His dad stirs it in his coffee.
American mall rats who buy theater tickets just for the laughs get a brief lesson on the Six Day War in 1967 and on Israel’s rules of engagement designed to shield innocent civilians from collateral damage. Zohan may be a raunchy comic book type of character, but he accurately represents most Israeli soldiers I’ve met in at least one way – he would much rather hang out with beautiful women on the beaches of Tel Aviv than fight Arabs. He’s easy to get along with as long as you are not trying to kill him. And if you are trying to kill him – watch out. The United States is correctly portrayed as a place where tension still exists between Israeli and Palestinian immigrants, but where that tension is also significantly muted and where some members of each community have pitched the old world hatreds over the side.
The second half of the movie gets even more silly and less believable when it begins to push a can’t-we-all-just-get-along message. Zohan’s boss, love interest, and the film’s heroine is Palestinian. The message is arguably appropriate, though, for a slap-stick American comedy. No one should expect a gritty, realistic treatment of tragic Middle East politics from a film like You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. The message, while a bit unrealistic, does manage to prevent a pro-Israel movie from becoming an anti-Arab movie, which is at it should be.
You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is not anti-Arab, nor is it really right-wing. It is far too juvenile and bawdy for that. But it’s refreshingly not leftist either. Those who love to hate Israel will hate Sandler’s new movie as much as Hezbollah and Hamas undoubtedly will.