When it comes to Adam Sandler movies, I feel like I never know what I'm going to get. Some of his films I've thought were really good (50 First Dates), others were very silly but still enjoyable (Click), and some have downright irritated me (I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, The Waterboy). Sandler's latest - You Don't Mess With the Zohan - is his most perplexing yet. There are two halves to this movie. I like both halves, just not together. Separately, either one would have made for an entertaining film, yet when combined, they create something undeniably muddled. Thank goodness for the concept of fence-sitting, because I can't decide which side to come down on.
Sandler stars as Zohan, an Israeli counter-terrorist with an almost supernatural ability to fight evil. (He can catch a bullet in his nostril from just a few inches.) Despite being very good at his job, Zohan is tired of the violence it entails. He fakes his death, packs up, and heads for New York City where he pursues his lifelong dream of being a professional hairdresser. He chooses the occupation because it is calm, controlled, and low-key. He also likes making his customers feel "silky smooth." Zohan ends up getting a job in a salon owned by Dalia (Entourage's Emmanuelle Chriqui), a young Palestinian woman. He specializes in giving flashy hairdos to older women, then sexually gratifying them in the back room.
Zohan's peaceful life is threatened when his old nemesis, the Palestinian agent known as the Phantom (John Turturro), discovers that he is alive and well. Wanting to settle an old score, the Phantom journeys to America to take Zohan down once and for all. He gets some assistance from an Arab cab driver (Rob Schneider) with his own personal grudge. There's also a ruthless business developer who, in an ill-fitting subplot, threatens to close down Dalia's salon in order to open a giant shopping mall on the lot.
I'm going to give Adam Sandler some credit: You Don't Mess With the Zohan is perhaps his most ambitious comedy to date. (I'm excluding Paul Thomas Anderson's wonderful Punch-Drunk Love, which starred Adam Sandler but was distinctly not a typical Adam Sander movie.) The comedian does not simply put on a wig, a bad silk shirt, and a goofy accent. He makes Zohan a complete character - a thinking, feeling guy who is trying to put his life on a more positive track. That's a far cry from the days of something like The Waterboy where Sandler seemed content to coast on his ability to play a doofus.
The film also has a more cerebral sense of humor than you'd expect. Or it does half the time, at least. Sandler co-wrote the screenplay with comedy guru Judd Apatow and Robert Smigel, who is perhaps best known as the creator of the acerbic Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. The trio takes an almost Borat-like approach to the plot, examining the public's perception of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict by pushing stereotypes as far as possible. Characters in this movie are seen doing things like playing hacky sack with a cat and dipping all their food in hummus before eating it. (At one point, Zohan even brushes his teeth with the stuff.) One Israeli character even owns a store called "Going Out of Business" because, well, it's good for business. There are additionally a lot of jokes about the two warring sides carrying their hostilities over into the United States, such as the one in which the Arab cabbie tries to buy explosives to blow up Zohan but mistakenly purchases a bulk of Neosporin instead.
At least half the movie consists of this heavily satirical Israeli/Palestinian humor, and some of it is quite funny. It's clear that Sandler and his co-writers want to use humor to provoke thought on the subject, as evidenced by their pro-harmony message at the end.
As sharp and stinging as some of that is, it also conflicts with Zohan's desire to give the crowd what they expect from an Adam Sandler movie. And so we get scenes showing Zohan's remarkable powers (he swims like a dolphin!) and workplace hijinks (he makes little old ladies orgasmic with his seductive hairstyling moves!).
That stuff is often funny too, but it clashes badly with the political comedy. You Don't Mess With the Zohan tries to mix high-brow satire with low-brow gross-out humor. The combination kills the story's pacing. Every time I started to absorb some of the more intellectual jokes about the futility of this endless Middle-Eastern conflict, the picture reverted back to sex jokes and showing Sandler's naked ass for yuks. Then, when I'd start to relax and enjoy a goofy no-brainer of a comedy, it would abruptly veer back into something more pointed and cerebral. Consequently, the film never really hits its groove. There are laughs along the way - some of them big - but comedy relies on building momentum, which this one never allows itself to do with all its flip-flopping back and forth.
People going in expecting a standard Adam Sandler comedy will wonder what all this other stuff is. I appreciated the attempt of the three talented writers to use their comedic skills in the service of something deeper. Humor, after all, is often a great way of taking the sting out of something troubling and allowing it to be looked at in a sober light. You Don't Mess With the Zohan would have been more interesting - and significantly less commercial - had it followed that path throughout. Or maybe Sandler and crew felt that tossing in some silly stuff was a way to ease audience members into a topic that may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable for them. If so, that's admirable, but it doesn't change the fact that, despite some really good qualities, Zohan never achieves the kind of consistency it needs to drive the point home.
( 1/2 out of four)
You Don't Mess With the Zohan is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content throughout, language and nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 51 minutes.
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