Adam Sandler has entered a new era of social consciousness and mature thought. Granted, he demonstrates this with jokes about sex and poop, but nonetheless, the ideas are there. First he starred in the post-9/11 drama “Reign over Me,” then in last year’s anti-homophobia comedy “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry,” and now in “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan,” an occasionally baffling, occasionally funny, frequently bizarre comedy about the tensions between Israel and Palestine.
Seriously. I’m not just reading into the subtext. It’s what the movie is really about.
Rest assured, most of the humor is as sophomoric as Sandler fans expect, directed with the usual lack of subtlety by regular Sandler enabler Dennis Dugan. (The first shot of the title character, and the focus of many, many, many subsequent shots, is his comically bulging package.) But mixed with the juvenile gags about sex with old people and using one’s powerful buttocks muscles to catch fish (don’t ask) are a few genuinely intelligent jokes about Israeli/Palestinian relations, as when an optimistic older Israeli woman figures the battle must almost be over because “they’ve been fighting for 2,000 years. It can’t be much longer!”
Sandler co-wrote the screenplay with his old pal Robert Smigel, and with Judd Apatow, whose brand of humor (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”), while dirty, is generally more sophisticated than Sandler’s. I don’t know how much each of the three men contributed to the screenplay (the credits indicate they actually collaborated, rather than merely revising one another’s work), but it accounts for the different styles and tones. I’m inclined to think it’s Apatow’s involvement that accounts for the smart parts, and for the fact that the movie’s about 20 minutes too long.
Sandler plays Zohan, the Israeli army’s top counter-terrorist, a Bond-style ladies’ man and an expert in hand-to-hand combat. (His abilities are cartoonishly exaggerated; at one point he pursues a jet-ski-riding terrorist by swimming after him like a dolphin.) But he is tired of the business and wants to move to America and become a hairstylist. Why a hairstylist? No reason is given. Let’s assume it’s because Sandler thought it would be really funny for an invincible Mossad agent to do that.
He winds up in New York, inexperienced with hair but eager to learn, and soon has a job at a salon owned by a Palestinian woman named Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui). He becomes a sensation among the shop’s old-lady clientele, who love the attention he pays them, and also the fact that after each cut and style he takes them to the back room and has sex with them.
With the exception of a few scenes of sharp comedy and robust jokes, the film is strangely inert, even lifeless. You’ll watch a scene drag on, waiting for the punch line to come, and then wonder why it never happened. Meanwhile, there are far too many dimensions to the plot, including Zohan’s obligatory romance with Dalia, a shady millionaire’s (Michael Buffer) attempts to buy out the neighborhood, the reappearance of Zohan’s old rival (John Turturro), and three New York Arabs (including Rob Schneider, naturally) learning Zohan’s real identity and wanting to kill him. There’s even a random scene of Zohan moonlighting as a limo driver that literally has no connection whatsoever to the rest of the film.
I like the movie’s lowbrow mockery of Israelis and Palestinians alike. The Israelis in New York all work in electronics stores with names like Everything Must Go and Going Out of Business, insisting that all the overpriced, no-name junk they sell has “Sony guts.” The Arabs all drive taxis or own newsstands and call the Hezbollah hotline for bomb-making tips. When the two groups face off in the middle of the street, their arguments quickly turn to common ground: Which political woman would you have sex with? (Someone suggests John McCain’s wife because “you know she’s not getting any.”)
That let’s-all-be-friends attitude is a good one, and there are some solid ideas here. I just wish they’d been put to use in a movie with more discipline and focus. Just when you think they’re on to something, the film reverts to the usual Sandler and Co. laziness where mentioning something repeatedly — the Israelis’ fondness for hummus, for example — is passed off as humor. Apparently the negotiations between Newly Smart Sandler and Regular Ol’ Sandler broke down before an accord could be reached, and this film is the half-finished result of those discussions.
C (1 hr., 50 min.; )