‘Zohan,’ ‘Iron Man’ and the Mideast

New comedies tackle touchy topics

WHILE FALL’S Iraq-themed films stumbled at the box office, there’s a current crop of Mideast pics that are doing extremely well.

But that trend seems to have gone unnoticed, because these are political films in disguise.

Adam Sandler’s “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” which opens today, is the latest addition to a roster that include “Iron Man,” “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay” and “The Visitor.”

While no one would confuse them — or their marketing — with fall’s crop (“The Kingdom,” “Rendition,” “In the Valley of Elah,” “Redacted,” etc.), the Mideast and the post-9/11 mood in America are central to all of these pics, which deal with the issues in wildly divergent ways.

“You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” is surprisingly subversive for a Hollywood teen comedy, with comic scenes of Sandler being tortured by Arabs, and jokes about scud missiles, militant Mideast children and grenades. There are enough sex jokes, romance and buffoonery that some audiences may be unaware that they’ve just seen a political film.

“So we are the bad guys?” asks a Palestinian. “I’m just saying, it’s not so cut and dried!”

It’s a joke line, delivered during a kung-fu fight with Sandler, who’s an Israeli commando. But it’s the theme of the film, with Sandler’s Palestinian girlfriend, played by Emmanuelle Chriqui, repeating variations of her sentiment, “Both sides are crazy. It has to stop.”

SOME MAY AGREE with Daily Variety‘s Brian Lowry, who groans that this sentiment is “a rather childlike plea” for peace. But in an era when congloms want four-quadrant summer movies that will offend no one, the message seems daring (especially considering the grief that Steven Spielberg got when his “Munich” offered a similar theme).

It’s been a long time since Hollywood dared to spoof modern global anxieties. In 1940, before the U.S. had entered WWII, Charlie Chaplin made “The Great Dictator,” about Hitler’s rise in Germany. Two years later, Ernst Lubitsch directed “To Be or Not to Be,” arguably even more daring, while Billy Wilder threw a bucket of cold water on the Cold War with “One, Two, Three” in 1961.

Is Sandler the comedic successor to those three? Well, let’s not get carried away. But Sandler (who is star, co-writer and a producer on the new film) has one thing in common with his comedy forbearers: He’s using his clout to tackle touchy subjects in an outrageous way — a move that most contemporary comedy stars have carefully avoided.

Since the 1970s, most “Saturday Night Live” alumni with film careers have made spoofs of sex, sports, schools and spies, but left the topical laffs to TV’s sketch comedies. In contrast, Sandler tackled gay marriage in his “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” and, as an actor for hire, made films about immigration (“Spanglish”) and Sept. 11 (“Reign Over Me”). OK, not exactly the definitive word on these issues, but he’s making films about something.

THE SAME IS TRUE of “Iron Man.” Its politics are a little screwy, but it’s not the usual comicbook fare.

At the beginning, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is captured in Afghanistan, held prisoner and waterboarded. In his New Yorker review, David Denby said that American interrogators have inflicted that on suspects, not the other way around. The critic lamented, “more Americans will see this dunderheaded fantasia on its opening weekend than have seen all the features and documentaries that have labored to show what’s happening in Iraq and on the home front.”

Despite that, the film aims at a pacifist message, with Stark saying, “I’m trying to protect the people that I put in harm’s way,” as he rescues an Afghan village and atones “I had become comfortable with a system that demanded zero accountability.” Take that, Donald Rumsfeld!

“Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay” has the only topical title. The first seg of the pic — which cost $12 million and has earned $38 million domestically — offers some funny moments as the two Americans, of Korean and Indian heritage, suffer racial profiling from airport security, fellow passengers and eventually Homeland Security (“North Korea and Al Qaeda working together! This is bigger than I thought!” says the government agent, who mocks their whining about things like Fifth Amendment rights.)

Once they are imprisoned, they escape almost immediately, and the pic misses out on an opportunity for really dark satire. The bulk of the comedy offers a cross-country trek filled with stoner and sex jokes, but returns to politics for the conclusion as the duo smoke weed with George W. Bush, who gets so high that he stands up to his father for the first time.

“The Visitor,” which is 2008’s specialty success story, was marketed as a character piece, emphasizing Richard Jenkins’ evolving Everyman. In essence, that is the plot, but the changes are spurred by his relationship with Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian immigrant. Jenkins meets a woman who compares the U.S. treatment of immigrants to Syria, whose government threw her husband in jail for one article he’d written. The movie’s depiction of the American government’s conduct certainly supports her theory. And as one character says of the post-9/11 environment, “It’s very black and white now. You either belong or you don’t.”

It’s not surprising American audiences didn’t flock to the movies about Iraq. While the war is still raging, the subject is too raw. People may want to wait until the war’s over before they sit in the dark and meditate on the hard lessons learned. But as these four films prove, you can teach lessons — and the audience can lap it up, if you know how to package it.

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