Comedian Adam Sandler is back on the big screen this weekend, looking for laughs with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a backdrop in his new movie "You Don't Mess with the Zohan."
The comedy is about an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian hit man who join forces against a new common enemy in New York City, but the question is will anyone laugh?
Director Dennis Dugan maintains "it's not as crazy as it sounds," despite the fact that many critics are aghast at the idea of making light comedy out of such thorny material.
"The people living in conflict in the Middle East are the same people living in one neighborhood in New York -- except that while there may be rivalries in Gaza, they don't hate each other in Brooklyn. Everybody just gets along," added Dugan. "They treat each other more as people than as rival factions."
"Zohan" is an anti-terror agent and hero in Israel who, exhausted by the conflict at home, fakes his death to make his dream come true: becoming a New York hair stylist.
In New York, Zohan marvels at Jews and Palestinians living in peace until a Palestinian hit man arrives in the Big Apple to exact revenge. But before the drama unravels in a spray of blood, the two end up joining forces against a new common enemy.
John Turturro plays a Palestinian villain named "Phantom" in the movie.
"Zohan is faking his death, but little does he realize that Phantom also has his own dreams of not fighting anymore," Tuturro said at the news conference.
"If Zohan is the Jewish James Bond, Phantom is an Arabic Eminem. He has gold teeth, he always wears shades, and he has his own chain of Muchentuchen restaurants. Basically -- and ironically for a guy named Phantom -- he's living off his fame not only as a freedom fighter of the people, but as the man who got the Zohan."
The plot was an idea of Sandler, now 41, who teamed up with friends and scriptwriters Robert Smigel and Judd Apatow. Apatow has penned some of Hollywood's biggest quirkiest comedies: "The 40 Year Old Virgin" (2005); "Knocked Up" (2007) and "Superbad" (2007).
Arab actors vs Israeli actors
"'You Don't Mess with the Zohan' is a comedic way of sort of getting at the 'West Side Story' aspect of life," joked Dugan who said he saw Jewish and Arab actors ended up in perhaps unexpected dialogue on the set.
"One of the great things on the set -- and we didn't do this intentionally -- was that we had many scenes that involved all the Arab guys and the Israeli guys in the same scene, meaning they were all called to the set together," said Smigel.
"Everyone would be eating lunch together. They had a lot of passionate discussions, but it was very friendly, very healthy, very open-minded. It was really cool to see -- some of the guys have said to me that it's the most they've every talked to an Arab or an Israeli before," he said.
"Toward the end of the shoot, I heard from some of the actors that they'd grown up hating or mistrusting all Israelis or all Arabs - until they came here."
"They actually said the shoot was a life-altering experience," added Smigel.
"Even though we make the point in the movie, I think it was a shock to everyone to see how much they all had in common. Look, it's not like we think we're solving anything with this film; we just wanted to be funny.
"But even for me, as a Jew, it was very interesting to feel as close to the Arabs on the set as I did to the Israelis," he added.
Old stereotypes, however, die hard.
Sayed Badreya, an Egyptian actor who plays a Palestinian cab driver, said Hollywood had been a dream since he came to the United States to study film.
"When I first came here in 1979 and first sought acting jobs, the only roles available were roles as terrorists. I was young and fit and too good looking to be a terrorist, so I couldn't get a job," he said.
"I grew my beard, put on weight, and got a job right away. Since then, for 20 years, I've had one line in every movie I've been in: 'In the name of Allah, I kill you all.'"