los angeles | 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 seems to be one of the messages of “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” starring Adam Sandler in the title role of an Israeli super commando-turned-New York hairstylist. The movie opens Friday, June 6.
Later this month, the film is scheduled for an Israeli premiere, although no Arab country has yet bid for the movie.
The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz describes the film as “‘Shampoo’ meets ‘Munich’ meets ‘Happy Gilmore.'”
Zohan Dvir, played by Sandler, is an Israeli counterterrorist agent who can leap tall buildings, swim faster than a motorboat, 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 (in scenes 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.
During a recent news conference, director Robert Smigel, Sandler and other film principals 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.
Smigel said his intent in making the film was to find humor in a situation fraught with daily tension. “It’s such a part of our lives that people need to laugh at it; it’s just a way of coping,” he said.
“Zohan” marks Smigel’s first major screenwriting credit, following a career in television as a writer with “Saturday Night Live” since 1985, perhaps best known for the “TV Funhouse” shorts. He is also the puppeteer behind Triumph the Insult Comic Dog on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien.”
Sandler, Smigel and Judd Apatow originally started work on “Zohan” in 2000, but the script was shelved following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In early 2007, Smigel got a call from Sandler saying he was interested in resurrecting the project.
When it came to Palestinian characters, Smigel consulted a few Arab friends for thoughts and suggestions.
“We were constantly showing the script to people from both sides,” Smigel said. “We make fun of both sides in a fairly gentle way. On both sides, we’ll be offensive. If it was only one-sided, I’d be concerned.”
Making a point to portray both sides as Americanized, Smigel contends that the message of the film is that the two groups are very similar, especially when in the United States. They are just trying to survive and make a living, he said.
Rob Schneider, who plays an aggrieved Palestinian, talked about “peace through laughter.”
As for the story, Zohan has to match muscle and wits — sort of — with his nemesis, a wily terrorist who operates under the nom de guerre “The Phantom,” played by John Turturro.
Zohan eventually finds work at a Brooklyn salon owned by Dalia, an exquisite Palestinian girl played by French-Moroccan actress Emmanuelle Chriqui. Zohan makes a name for himself by employing the innovative technique of following each haircut with a special client service in the back room — so vigorous that the whole salon shakes.
Word quickly spreads, and business becomes so good that Dalia is able to fend off the evil developer who wants to tear down her place.
Israeli and Palestinian expatriates populate the neighborhood; many of them drive cabs or engage in other dubious enterprises.
Trouble looms when the Phantom, who now runs a Middle Eastern restaurant, wants to settle scores with Zohan. However, Jews and Arabs in the neighborhood are busy building up their own businesses and are in no mood to resume the old battles.
The 113-minute film caricatures both Israelis and Palestinians, with plenty of material to offend both sides, though Arabs take a few more hits.
An advance screening produced some laughter, but less than one might expect. Zohan elicited snickers for frequently baring his backside and for the energetic servicing of the salon’s clients — including a friend’s mother and a few grandmothers.
The picture is rated PG-13; perhaps we are fortunate to be spared an R-rated version. “Zohan” features a cast of 175, including Israelis and Palestinians portraying 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.
“Some of the best Israeli actors auditioned for the role,” Mosseri said. “The last four months have been the best of my life. I feel as if I had made the NBA.”
Moreover, Mosseri said, 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,” he said. “After the film wrapped, we all went on a ‘creative’ trip to Las Vegas.”
Jay Firestone of the L.A. Jewish Journal contributed to this report.
“You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” opens Friday, June 6 at many Bay Area theaters, including the new Alameda Theatre and Cineplex, Century San Francisco Centre, Century at Tanforan in San Bruno and United Artists Berkeley 7.