Politics & Policy

Billy Madison Goes to Jerusalem

A different kind of sex and the city hits theaters this weekend.

Alex, I’ll take “lines I’ll never laugh at” for $500.

For terrorist supplies, press 1.”

What is: The operator on the Hezbollah Hotline in the new movie Don’t Mess with the Zohan.

****

You can picture the guys at Happy Madison, Adam Sandler’s production company, sitting around their Hollywood studio, playing ping-pong.

They’re working, trying to come up with a plot for their next hit movie. One of the guys says:

Hey, I know! Let’s make a comedy about the Middle East. Arabs, Jews, hummus, fizzy soda, prayer calls, and circumcision. AND Paul Mitchell.

Paul Mitchell? The hair guy?

Yeah, that Paul Mitchell. A Mossad macho man who gets mistaken for a “macho, macho man” when he fakes his death to escape the land of eternal violence to find his dream of styling hair in America.

Just about anywhere else, the idea-maker there would have gotten as welcome a reception as John Bolton at the U.N. At Happy Madison, though, they ran with it, reflecting Sandler’s increasing tendency to star in movies with a weird balance of — on one hand — beautiful and deadly serious treatment of issues as fundamental as marriage and fatherhood and — on the other — the same old Waterboy middle-school jokes. They’ve managed to bring the ridiculous idea to life. This weekend, in Don’t Mess with the Zohan, a Palestinian terrorist known as the Phantom (played by John Turturro) and Israeli Defense Force counterterrorism machine Zohan (Sandler) will be, literally, playing ping-pong with grenades at a theater near you.

***

In Zohan, Sandler has teamed up with Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) and Robert Smigel (those TV Funhouse cartoons on Saturday Night Live) to create the best comedy of the War on Terror — and it probably makes the top of the charts when it comes to comedies about the thousands of years of war in the Land of Canaan, too.

Zohan’s presentation isn’t quite as “silky smooth” as Scrappy Coco might have liked. (Scrappy Coco is the name Zohan adopts when he fakes his death to become — I’m not kidding — a Brooklyn hairdresser. And an out-of-touch hairdresser at that: He’s stuck between the disco and Flock of Seagulls eras. I guess Amazon doesn’t deliver Paul Mitchell annual hair-style-update books to Israel.) One over-the-top, crude theme makes it inappropriate for the kids. But a movie that makes serious jokes about Hezbollah and Hamas probably has to have an element of the overwhelmingly silly; and you probably didn’t want to take your kids to a Hezbollah-joking movie anyway.

In Zohan, you meet terrorists who are terrorists because it’s all they know. You meet Arabs and Jews who have done their best to escape that world, emigrating to the United States, finding themselves living in the same kind of tight us vs. them ’hood, only without the wall or the wailing. It can feel a little bit like a give-the-world-a-Coke commercial at times, but for the most part it avoids the saccharine. Zohan manages to be full of humanity without making excuses or searching for root causes.

Full disclosure: I’ve been to Happy Madison’s Culver City offices and I’ve seen the ping-pong table. I’m partial to these smart, good guys with their love of country, astute awareness of the world they live in, and dedication to entertaining both themselves and others. They know the power of humor and of not taking themselves too seriously — and they’re not afraid to take it to the most un-p.c. of places. “Shut up and make people laugh” might be their motto, and explain a lot of Zohan.

If you’re looking for a serious movie, Don’t Mess with the Zohan is not for you, as the movies’ ads might already have made clear. But if you want to laugh, can handle some cringing, and don’t want to completely leave behind the reality of war in the holiest of lands, Zohan is fresh, fearless, and fun.

“Lather. Rinse. Save the world.” There have actually been more ridiculous diplomatic efforts in the real world. When Zohan’s mother announces to her fighting son, “They’ve been fighting for 2,000 years, it can’t be much longer,” we, along with Zohan, know it will be quite a while yet. So in the meantime — Muslims, Jews, Christians, all — why not sit down for a few laughs?

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