You Don't Mess With the Zohan
Director : Dennis Dugan
Screenplay : Adam Sandler & Robert Smigel & Judd Apatow
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Adam Sandler (Zohan), John Turturro (The Phantom), Emmanuelle Chriqui (Dalia), Nick Swardson (Michael), Lainie Kazan (Gail), Ido Mosseri (Oori), Rob Schneider (Salim), Dave Matthews (James), Michael Buffer (Walbridge), Charlotte Rae (Mrs. Greenhouse), Sayed Badreya (Hamdi), Daoud Heidami (Nasi), Kevin Nealon (Kevin), Robert Smigel (Yosi), Dina Doron (Zohan’s Mother), Shelley Berman (Zohan’s Father)
You have to give Adam Sandler some credit: He is trying new things and working to expand his particular brand of juvenile comedy, albeit not always successfully. Last summer he tried playing a hypersexualized lothario who pretends to be gay to help his best friend keep his work benefits in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, which balanced its forced message of tolerance with flaming gay stereotypes. Now we have him playing a hypersexualized Mossad operative in You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, which balances its forced message of tolerance with Jewish and Arab stereotypes. If Zohan is the better movie, it is largely because its message about the need to quell centuries-old conflict with simple human understanding comes across as slightly more sincere than Chuck & Larry’s clearly uncomfortable “gays are people, too” rhetoric.
Sandler is the Zohan of the title, who lives the fast life on Israeli beaches when he isn’t saving the world from terrorists. He is the best of the best of the best, to the point that he is literally superhuman (I don’t know what else qualifies you to catch a bullet in your nose). However, Zohan is tired of all the fighting and killing, and he wants to escape to New York and become a hairdresser because it’s peaceful and relaxing to make people’s hair “silky smooth,” as he puts it. So, during a battle with his arch-nemesis, a Palestinian terrorist named The Phantom (Jon Turturro), Zohan fakes his own death and hitches a ride to the Big Apple (under the new name Scrappy Coco, which he borrows from a pair of dogs in whose crate he hides himself). Zohan thinks that Paul Mitchell will immediately welcome him into his salon, but instead he ends up working in a small shop run by Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui), a beautiful Palestinian émigré with whom he ends up falling in love, but only after becoming a neighborhood celebrity due to the generosity with which he shares his wall-banging sexual prowess with the shop’s middle-aged female customers.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what Sandler, who coscripted the film with SNL writer Robert Smigel and Knocked Up writer/director Judd Apatow, is trying to satirize here. The most obvious target is Israeli-Palestinian tension, but any real opportunity to shed comedic light on such long-standing strife is buried in an avalanche of sub-Borat jokes about Zohan’s blithe inability to fully assimilate into his new American home. Never having been to Israel I can’t speak directly about fashions and pop culture there, but surely it isn’t so behind the times that a stylish sex symbol like Zohan isn’t aware that Paul Mitchell has updated his hairstyle book since 1985 and straight men don’t wear Daisy Dukes. Sandler clearly wants to ride the same jokes about cultural backwardness that Sacha Baron Cohen exploited so hilariously, but he doesn’t seem to get that it makes no real sense in the context of his film. The cultural jokes are balanced with some truly bonker visual gags, including a game of hacky sack with a live cat, as well as plenty of the largely ineffective stunt casting we’ve come to expect in comedies of this sort, which includes Chris Rock as an African cab driver whose punch-line involves his family being hacked to death, Kevin Nealon as a fearful neighborhood watch captain, and Mariah Carey proving that the only thing she does worse than play a version of herself is to play herself literally (her last line is actually crying out, “Buy my new album!”).
Directed by Sandler regular Dennis Dugan (this is their fourth collaboration), You Don’t Mess With the Zohan squanders most of its potential largely through repetition. While there are a few genuinely hilarious gags, including a group of would-be terrorists huddled around a speaker phone while calling an unhelpful Hezbollah hotline, there are few jokes in the film that aren’t used at least half a dozen times, thus ensuring that, even if they seemed fresh and funny the first time, they will be tired and irritating by the end. How many times, for example, will Dugan try to milk laughs from slow-motion shots of Zohan spritzing water on his orgasmic clientele and dancing lasciviously around them? How many times will Rob Schneider make his eyes bug out as Salim, an irate Arab taxi driver who recognizes Zohan and plots to kill him? How many times will Sandler play the fine line between his character’s unbridled sexuality and his almost childlike innocence to generate sympathy? The answer to all of these is too many, as Zohan is at best an 80-minute comedy that’s been just barely squeezed into 113 minutes.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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