'Zohan' a holy grail in Israel

'Exaggerated' character embraced by Jews

TEL AVIV, Israel -- In Zohan Dvir, Israelis have a Hollywood hero -- no matter that the soldier-turned-hairstylist played by Adam Sandler represents some of their country's worst stereotypes.

"You Don't Mess With the Zohan" looks to be a big hit in the Holy Land. Billboards bearing the leading man's split-legged, blowdryer-wielding image are plastered across city walls, and numerous stories have been written and broadcast in the local media, which has called it the "most Israeli film in Hollywood."

The movie tries to bridge Jews and Arabs by making fun of them. But in Israel, where the movie opened Thursday, people are drawn in more because of its Israeli protagonist and the cadre of Israeli actors and musicians featured in the film.

Israelis didn't seem too slighted by the not-too-favorable portrayal of them. At Wednesday's premiere in Tel Aviv, the packed crowd burst out in ovation and laughter at each sighting of an Israeli actor and at each over-the-top cliche of their behavior -- like when Zohan brushes his teeth with hummus, disco dances with a huge bulge in his pants or plays paddle ball with hand grenades.

"I wasn't insulted at all. It was funny. Exaggerated, but funny," said Guy Ben-Yaacov, 23. "Besides, I know a few guys like Zohan."

Israelis involved in the film said the exposure could only be good for their country.

"I think it is almost a gesture toward Israel," said Ido Mosseri, who plays Zohan's pushy expat Israeli sidekick Oori. "I was a little worried because Israeli crowds are very critical, but I think they took it all in with love."

Amir Kaminer, movie critic for the Yediot Ahronot daily, said Sandler's Zohan is the most prominent Israeli character out of Hollywood since Paul Newman played the Jewish fighter Ari Ben Canaan in "Exodus" in 1960. But that's where the comparison ends.

He said it was natural Israelis were excited about the fanfare but that the movie was "vulgar and stupid" and an inaccurate depiction of Israel.

"We're not all about eating hummus, killing Arabs and fornicating. We do other things as well," he said. "There has been a lot of water under the bridge between Ari Ben Canaan and Zohan Dvir."

Shaanan Streett, frontman for one of Israel's best-known hip-hop ensembles, Hadag Nahash, has four of his band's Hebrew songs featured in the film. He didn't mind the ribbing at all.

"I have no problem making fun of Israel, 'cause I think we are pretty damn funny," he said. "A lot of Israelis think that Israel is holier than holy, but when things are not so sad here, they are actually funny ... it's actually a step toward normality to make fun of us."
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