You Don't Mess with the Zohan (2008) / Comedy-Action
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for crude and sexual content throughout, language and nudity
Running time: 113 min.
Cast: Adam Sandler, John Turturro, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Rob Schneider, Lainie Kazan, Nick Swardson, Ido Mosseri, Daoud Heidami, Michael Buffer, Sayed Badreya, Dave Matthews, Kevin Nealon, Mariah Carey
Cameo: Charlotte Rae, Robert Smigel, Chris Rock, John McEnroe, George Takei, Bruce Vilanch, Dennis Dugan, Dom DeLuise, Kevin James, Henry Winkler
Director: Dennis Dugan
Screenplay: Adam Sandler, Robert Smigel, Judd Apatow
Adam Sandler (Reign Over Me, Click) stars as Zohan Dvir, a highly skilled Israeli counter terrorist commando whose feats of superhuman agility has made him a one-man army to strike fear in the Arab organizations that dare continue the fight against Israel. Punches don't phase him, bullets can't stop him, to the point where he has become bored of his life of fighting terrorists and wants a challenge -- living out his dream to become a hair dresser in the U.S. While fighting with his Palestinian nemesis, and equal in all fighting prowess, Phantom (Turturro, What Just Happened), Zohan fakes his death and makes his escape, giving himself a new hairdo and makeover, and making his way to New York as Scrappy Coco, up-and-coming, Australian-Tibetan stylist of hair. No one wants this flamboyant and inexperienced new stylist, but he manages to work his way into a salon run by a beautiful Palestinian woman named Dalia (Chriqui, In the Mix). He's a major sensation, but his past comes back to haunt him when some local Arabs figure out that Scrappy Coco isn't who he claims to be, and the 2000-year-old war won't let Zohan stay out of the game for long.
You Don't Mess with the Zohan is a half-hearted attempt from a mostly Jewish collection of filmmakers to have a little fun with the tensions between the Israeli and Arab communities that erupt into bloodshed and violence on a seemingly daily basis. As with another film about tolerance in the Adam Sandler/Dennis Dugan (The Benchwarmers, National Security) oeuvre, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, the object is to perpetually insult and poke fun at its subjects as much as possible before showing that deep down, they really are just kidding and want everyone to get along. In between, there is the usual stuff you'd expect from Sandler: dick jokes, fat jokes, geriatric jokes, gay jokes, fart jokes, and sex jokes. This entry is more of an action film than others he's done, which makes it at least somewhat different, but at its heart, it's the same old Adam Sandler you've either come to love or loathe since Billy Madison.
I don't necessarily have a problem with lowbrow humor, as I enjoyed a similarly scatological entry with funny accents with Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat. That film tapped into its exploitation of stereotypes to reveal that some of them aren't too far off of the mark when it comes to racism and sexism that pervades much of society. Part of this is because the heroes of that film are complete idiots meant to draw out gullible real-life people to reveal sides of themselves that aren't always pretty or pleasant in order to accommodate their behavior. You Don't Mess with the Zohan suffers more from having nearly everyone in the film a walking stereotype, and more often than not, goes for absurd sight gags rather than reveal underlying truths beneath the ostensibly deliberate social commentary. When Zohan twists up the limbs of his adversaries until they can't move from being in a pretzel position, it's a case of the screenwriters putting in a joke just to have one.
As with many other Sandler films, jokes are recycled within the same film as if the repetition will incite more humor value with each instance. For example, Zohan is shown as having an insatiable yen for hummus. He's so taken by the spicy dipping sauce that he even drenches candy bars with it before consuming. It's a slightly amusing stereotypical observation that middle easterners like hummus -- a lot. But the jokes don't stop after the candy bar, but with every instance of food consumption, and goes so far as to just be included in scenes just because. One later scene has Zohan attempt to put out a fire with a hose that shoots out hummus. It wouldn't have been funny if it were the first instance of the condiment in the film, so why does Sandler think that this scene would be funny if it were the twelfth?
It's this kind of kitchen sink approach to comedy that ultimately undermines whatever initial inspiration the film had going for it back when such respected comedic minds like screenwriters Judd Apatow (Walk Hard, Knocked Up) and Robert Smigel ("TV Funhouse" on "SNL") had input as to where the story should go. Once Sandler and Dugan had their final say on any scenes, wit was turned into slapstick and characterizations into cartoonishness. If it's not going to make a 10-year-old boy laugh, it's just not funny, according to this way of thinking, so that's precisely the only demographic they target. The juvenile side of me might occasionally laugh at the dumbest of the jokes, such as a sight gag that has Zohan taking a leak in the cat's litter box, much to the chagrin of the cat, and yet I feel uncomfortable knowing that many of those youngsters the film is so clearly appealing to will now form some fairly unsavory opinions and new words, like "raghead." Sure, the film comes out in the end with a message of unity, but when 100 minutes of the film is spent playing up stereotypes vs. 10 of getting along, there may be an imbalance to the ultimate message that Sandler tries to expound upon.
You can't mess with the Zohan if the Zohan's already a mess. It doesn't take long before you realize that the only difference between Zohan and any other film in which Sandler's name appears as part of the writing crew is that he is more of a bold, virile man than nebbish man-child and there are many CGI-enhanced fight scenes that look funnier than they play (akin to a Stephen Chow comedy). If you've sat through all of what Sandler has dished out so far and have been content with the product, this isn't going to change your opinion, and the same goes for if you haven't. As for me, it seems like Sandler has continued to regress into childish humor as he's gotten older. Either that or he's gotten lazier, afraid to try something new and different because his readymade audience hasn't made the jump along with him whenever he's tried to branch out. In making a film showcasing a man who changes occupations because he wants new challenges, Sandler himself is all too content to just check the boxes of audience expectation and deliver little more than that.
©2009 Vince Leo