New York Times: Israelis and Arabs Walk Into a Film …

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.

At the time, Mr. Sandler (who rarely if ever gives interviews to the print news media) delegated the script to Mr. Smigel, who had frequently written for him on “Saturday Night Live,” and Judd Apatow, a former roommate of Mr. Sandler’s, who was not yet the one-man comedy juggernaut of “Knocked Up” and “40-Year-Old Virgin” fame.

Both writers found “Zohan” a subversive, somewhat improbable assignment. “There was always this question of, can you make this movie?” Mr. Apatow said in a phone interview. “Because it is making fun of the fact that people are so mad at each other.”

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, Mr. Sandler and his screenwriters shelved the first draft of the script, which so mercilessly sent up stereotypes of its characters that, Mr. Apatow said, “it’s like a Don Rickles routine: no one doesn’t get hurt.” But in the months that followed, as they saw popular culture address the aftermath of 9/11 on comedy shows like “SNL” and dramatic series like “24,” they were gradually persuaded to revive the project.

In revisions of “Zohan,” the Mideast nations cited in the script were given fictitious names, and their ancient territorial feud became a dispute over orange groves.

However, Mr. Sandler and his team ultimately returned to a draft that did not disguise the political subject matter, believing that some filmgoers would be upset by it no matter how subtle their approach.

“Any time you do any version of comedy that has anything to do with race or prejudice, you’re always going to make some people mad,” Mr. Smigel said. “Whether your intention is pure or not, they’re going to find something to be angry about.”

To the extent that “Zohan” deals with the intractable cycle of violence in the Middle East, it is careful not to take sides, and mocks itself for making such perilous source material a subject for comedy. In the midst of elaborate fight sequences, its 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.)

The movie does not dare to suggest solutions to these conflicts, or to offer false hope that they will soon be resolved: in one scene, three Arab New Yorkers attempting to take down Zohan call the “Hezbollah Phone Line” for instructions on how to make a bomb. In a recorded message, they are told the information is not currently available during peace talks with Israel, and are instructed to call back “as soon as negotiations break down.”

(“I’m sure a joke like that will irritate some people,” Mr. Smigel said.)

“Zohan” wasdivisive 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.

Mr. Sandler attempted to ease any discomfort during filming by encouraging his co-stars to gather outside his trailer at an area furnished with tables and lawn chairs, where they would smoke cigars and talk shop during breaks. Inevitably, some heated debates about Mideast politics occurred during these conversations. (“Don’t think it was always nicey-nicey,” Mr. Badreya said.) But the talks also yielded at least one spontaneous trip to Las Vegas, attended by Arab and Israeli actors alike.

It is hard to predict if viewers will similarly rally around “Zohan” and its modest moral that Israelis and Arabs are more alike than dissimilar. The fact that the film was made at all — and is scheduled to be the first major release of Sony’s Columbia Pictures division in a summer crowded with comedies — would seem to be a huge bet that Mr. Sandler’s proven ability to draw large audiences will outweigh political content that could repel moviegoers.

“The only people who you could imagine being attracted to the Israeli-in-New York, complexity-of-the-Middle East dimensions are adults, and they don’t go to the movies,” said Marty Kaplan, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and a former film executive at Disney. “This entire campaign, as always, is targeted at boys from 13 to 18.”

While overt political messages have driven viewers away from many movies in recent years, Mr. Kaplan said, the prospect of “the latest Adam Sandler comedy — which is what this movie promises to be — is the thing that’s going to entice them.”

Representatives for Sony declined to discuss whether the weighty overtones of “Zohan,” a film estimated to have cost $90 million, might hurt ticket sales or affect how the movie was being promoted, except to say that it was being marketed as a character-driven Adam Sandler comedy. The anxiety of how the film might be received seemed to weigh heavily on Mr. Smigel, a self-identified liberal whose politically pointed sketches for “SNL.” and “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” have drawn the ire of everyone from the Anti-Defamation League to the left-leaning blog Daily Kos to the Canadian House of Commons. Mr. Smigel said such criticism had taught him to be more careful with his comedy. “If there are people who are genuinely hurt by it on some level, no matter what my intention was, I have to pay attention to that,” he said.

Even in satirical discussions of race and ethnicity, Mr. Smigel said, a certain amount of self-censorship might be prudent. “I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that people can’t freely call me a dirty Jew, like they might have been able to 30 years ago,” he said.

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.

Mr. Badreya, who was recently seen playing an Afghan terrorist in “Iron Man,” said that by offering Arab or Muslim characters that are in any way divergent from the usual Hollywood stereotypes, “Zohan” is a step in the right direction.

“The movie presents what happened to me,” said Mr. Badreya, who grew up in Port Said, Egypt, during the 1967 and 1973 wars and emigrated to the United States in 1979. “Since it happened to me, it will work for someone like me.”

Mr. Badreya said that the comedy in “Zohan” was not quite evenly divided between ridiculing Arabs and ridiculing Jews. “The jokes are not 50-50,” he said. “It’s 70-30. Which is great. We haven’t had 30 for a long time. We’ve been getting zero. So it’s good.”

Copyright © 2008 New York Times