You Don't Mess with the Zohan

(2008) ** Pg-13
113 min. Sony Pictures Releasing. Director: Dennis Dugan. Cast: Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Nick Swardson, John Turturro.

/content/films/3102/33.jpgA thrill went through Hollywood Jews on the release of Steven Spielberg's Munich, and for good reason. Here was a big-budget major motion picture that spotlighted a team of Jewish action heroes. As for Jewish comics, they started sharpening their pencils. Three years later, we get You Don't Mess with the Zohan, an audacious comedy putting forward Adam Sandler as a well-endowed super-strong super-stud whose style is at least twenty years out of date.

Here is a film with no equal in Hollywood history, though it smells an awful lot like every other movie from Happy Madison Productions (Sandler's shingle). In tone, You Don't Mess with the Zohan most closely resembles Sandler's previous movie, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, a plea on behalf of gay rights following a stream of homophobic jokes.  As in that film, You Don't Mess with the Zohan embraces every shorthand pop-culture archetype about the Middle East on the way to promoting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Is this what we call "well-intentioned"? You've got to give Sandler that there are easier ways to grab cash than selling Sony on a comedy about an Israeli counter-terrorist who wants to be a hairdresser, but methinks the kids to whom this superhero movie will most appeal won't be able to separate the stereotypes from the political wishful thinking.

Superhero movie? What else to call the story of a man who single-handedly beats three muscle-men in a tug-of-war, catches bullets with his bare hand (and bare nostril), and does no-handed pushups? A bulked-up Sandler plays the Zohan, who's regularly charged with bringing down terrorists like The Phantom (John Turturro, good for a variety of funny shrieks), but dreams of making people's hair "silky smooth," just like in his 1987 Paul Mitchell New York catalog. Whenever people learn his dream, they of course assume he's gay ("You want to be a hair-homo," says a friend), but the Zohan will not be deterred. He fakes his death, flies to New York to get a job in a salon, and takes on the secret identity of "Scrappy Coco." He finds the task more difficult than he expected, and so must take a job sweeping up in a Palestinian hair salon coincidentally run by a hot young woman named Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui).

And the stage is set for the Sandler formula of lazy romance, lazy gross-outs, and lazy running jokes. What will the ten-year-olds learn about their Jewish neighbors? They're homophobic, consume junk-food products with wacky names, put hummus on everything (even raging fires), play nothing but hacky sack, drive a hard (and corrupt) bargain in their electronics stores by day, disco dance by night, and in their jobs as movers and fast-food servers stow away automatic weapons in eager anticipation of the day when they can throw down against terrorists. Oh, and they love Sony recording artist Mariah Carey (the self-promoting product placement in this Sony movie is as shameless as it is dutiful).

Because this is a Sandler vehicle, it's also full of sex jokes ranging from the profane (fish in the ass) to the subl—no, wait, sorry. There are no sublime sex jokes in this movie. But the Zohan cuts hair like a porn star...literally. The "Coco look" perpetrated by the Zohan may be hideous, but sex sells. (One for Sandler's contemporaries: the Zohan boinks 82-year-old Charlotte "Mrs. Garrett" Rae. He's got your facts of life right here!) Sorry, parents: this may be the lewdest PG-13 movie ever made. Though that's to be expected from screenwriters Sandler, Robert Smigel (Triumph the Insult Comic Dog), and Judd Apatow (The 40 Year Old Virgin), so are laughs. Psyche.

Actually, the mounting absurdities at times broke through to me. Tiring though it may be, this is a crazy-ass movie: cracking jokes about Hezbollah and Mel Gibson's racism (twice) has to count for something. I had to laugh at the Zohan's blithe abuse of a kid nervous to get a haircut (sue me—I was desperate for a yuk) and the sight of John Turturro returning to the territory of Do the Right Thing to administer a happy ending (starting by fist-fighting a fire started by racist thugs). But I wasn't laughing at a warmed-over Barbershop subplot about saving the salon from greedy landlords. In terms of plot and laugh-out-loud moments, the whole thing's about on the level of a four-page sketch out of Cracked Magazine.

The supporting cast includes Rob Schneider (natch) as a Palestinian would-be-terrorist taxi driver, Ahmed Ahmed as a neighborhood Arab, Nick Swardson as the Zohan's goony new friend, and Lainie Kazan as the geek's randy mother. Adding to the overlong running time, four-time Sandler director Dennis Dugan packs in the requisite celebrity cameos (at least twelve, not counting Shelley Berman as the Zohan's dad). It all adds up to business-as-usual big-budget nonsense, filmed on digital cameras perhaps to offset the cost of several special effects companies and Sandler's salary. If only the movie were more like the Zohan's wistful view of hairdressing: "It's pleasant. It's peaceful. No one gets hurt."

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