Pushtak to Shove
Adam Sandler attacks the Middle East.
Jun 16, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 38 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
You Don't Mess with the Zohan
Adam Sandler's lunatic new comedy, You Don't Mess with the Zohan, is a landmark of sorts: Aside from Steven Spielberg's Munich, it is the first major Hollywood studio release in nearly half-a-century featuring an Israeli protagonist. You have to go back all the way to 1960 to find Sandler's predecessor--a glowing Paul Newman laboring heroically to help bring the Jewish state into being in Otto Preminger's epic Exodus (a movie so excruciatingly long that, during a screening, Mort Sahl stood up three hours in and called out, "Otto, let my people go!").
There have been on-screen Israelis, but interestingly for an industry supposedly controlled by Jews, they've mostly been villains. In Last Embrace, a little-known early movie by the Oscar-winning Jonathan Demme, Roy Scheider runs afoul of hit men from the Jewish state. In 1990's Internal Affairs, the lascivious Israeli wife of an American arms dealer (her name is Tova, no less) is thrilled to be violated under the table in a restaurant by a corrupt L.A. cop played by Richard Gere. 1980's Eyewitness and 1991's Homicide feature naifs (William Macy and Joe Mantegna respectively) running afoul of murderous Zionist conspiracies. (Homicide was written and directed by David Mamet, who has become a scourge of anti-Semites the world over, which is nice, but he seems not to have noticed his own movie is based on a classic anti-Semitic plot point.)
What makes You Don't Mess with the Zohan a breakthrough, therefore, is that Sandler's character is nothing less than a superhero. Since this is a Sandler movie, Zohan's talents--he's a counterterrorism secret agent--are mostly played for laughs. He can literally twist people into pretzels, and at one point he wills a hand lopped off by a terrorist interrogator to rise from the floor, grab his enemy's dagger, and stab the guy in the back. But in an odd sort of way, the humor only reinforces the idea.
The joke here is that Zohan is not only Israel's finest terror combatant; he's also what Israelis call a pushtak, a greaser, a bridge-and-tunnel guy from the land of milk and honey, a Jewish Guido. The classic pushtak saunters down a Tel Aviv street with a pack of cigarettes rolled up inside his T-shirt sleeve. He believes he is God's gift to the world, especially to the ladies, and he takes himself with the utmost seriousness even as others laugh at him. Inside Israel, the pushtak is a dated stereotype, a figure of sport from the 1970s and '80s.
Sandler and his collaborators, the brilliant comic writers Robert Smigel and Judd Apatow, seem completely aware of this, since their Zohan is obsessed with "going disco disco" and sports a hairdo copied from a 1983 Paul Mitchell styling catalogue. Zohan worships at the altar of Paul Mitchell because, even though he can scamper through a Beirut neighborhood like Spider-Man, he wants to chuck it all and become a hairdresser. (There were a lot of Israeli hairstylists in New York in the early 1980s; maybe one of them coiffed Sandler or Smigel and this film was born.)
Dated the type may be, but since the pushtak is unknown to all but a few million people on earth, Sandler's use of it to craft a new comic character is inspired. (Would that his Israeli accent were similarly inspired; half the time he sounds French.) In fact, everything in this movie that has to do with Israel and Israelis is hilarious, if wildly over the top. The dazzling opening scene, set to a catchy number by an Israeli hip-hop band, shows Zohan walking the length of the beach in Tel Aviv playing hacky sack, dancing, fighting, and hosting a barbecue until an army helicopter comes to fetch him for yet another dangerous mission.
His parents won't hear of him taking up another line of work. "You're Rembrandt with a grenade!" his mother declares. His father, played by the great old stand-up Shelley Berman, delivers a gasp-inducingly funny monologue about his son's homosexual leanings when he hears about the hair ambitions.
There is a running gag involving hummus that should grow old quickly but only gets funnier as the movie goes along--and another, more obscure running gag about an orange soda called "Fizzy Bubblech" that may be even funnier to anyone who has ever tried to imbibe a soft drink in the Middle East. (This may be the only time in history that the Tribe brand of kosher chick pea-based foodstuffs has found itself in a position to secure product placement in a major motion picture.)