Adam Sandler comedies come in two varieties: mediocre and awful. In the mediocre ones (Billy Madison, The Wedding Singer, etc.), he plays an exaggerated version of himself: bashful, sarcastic, prone to temper tantrums. In the awful ones, he attempts to stretch his range, usually adopting an unbearable accent, and fails. By all rights, You Don't Mess with the Zohan should have a pedestal reserved for it in the pantheon of crap next to Little Nicky and The Waterboy. Yet, defying all laws of modern comedy, this silly movie about an Israeli commando who comes to America to become a hairdresser isn't awful. In fact, it's nearly great.
|Adam Sandler is The Zohan, here car-surfing in New York City traffic.
The surprising secret to its success is that Sandler plays an affect he's never tried before: confident. Indeed, the Zohan may be the most self-assured man on the planet. He's the greatest soldier in the world's most feared army, and a celebrity on the beaches of Tel Aviv, where women fawn over him and men worship him. Even pelicans give him high-fives. (I said it was silly, right?) The fits of rage so familiar to fans of Sandler films are nowhere to be found. The Zohan is too cocky--in more ways than one--to get frustrated.
But all the glory and adulation have become boring. The Zohan is tired of capturing terrorists only to have them returned in prisoner exchanges. In his over-the-top Israeli accent, he wonders to his parents when the cycle of violence between Jews and Arabs will end. To which his mother replies, "They've been fighting for 2,000 years. It can't be much longer."
Faking his own death after a paddleball match with Palestine's most feared terrorist, The Phantom (John Turturro), The Zohan flees to America to pursue his dream of working at the Paul Mitchell salon. Clutching his 1987 Mitchell stylebook, the Zohan fantasizes about making women's coifs "silky smooth." Take Munich and replace Avner with Austin Powers, and you're getting the idea.
Having never cut human hair before, Zohan ends up in a working class New York neighborhood where Israelis and Arabs co-exist uncomfortably on opposite sides of the street. He takes a job sweeping floors at a salon run by a harried Palestinian beauty, played by the gorgeous (and Jewish) Emmanuelle Chriqui. And then the plot really gets ridiculous. A trio of working-class Arabs, led by Rob Schneider (also Jewish) in brown facepaint, attempts to assassinate the Zohan with Neosporin. But the ultimate bogeyman is neither Muslim nor Jewish. It's a mall developer who wants to raze the neighborhood, played with a painful lack of timing and professionalism by non-actor Michael Buffer--best known as a ring announcer at pro wrestling matches.
The movie is at its best when it sticks to its core subject: Israeli machismo. Sandler plays the Zohan broadly, as the most sexualized Sabra this side of the Mediterranean, with a fashion sense predating the fall of the Iron Curtain. The script, by Sandler, Robert Smigel and the ubiquitous Judd Apatow, has great fun with the quirks of Israeli culture. Zohan and his Israeli buddies have hyperactive sex drives, making love exclusively to old and overweight women. Their taste for hummus is equally insatiable, as they dip everything from chicken to chocolate in the stuff. Zohan even brushes his teeth with ground chickpeas.
|Adam Sandler practices his hairstyling on hot older woman Lainie Kazan.
Ultimately, the Israelis and the Arabs find common ground in their shared attraction to Hillary Clinton, obsession with hackey sack and love for Mariah Carey's music. They join forces to fight Buffer's developer and his minions, led by a redneck racist played by Dave Matthews, of the Dave Matthews Band. Even the Phantom finds room for forgiveness.
Zohan's love affair with Chriqui's character is predictably simplistic, although it touches on the kind of family opposition and cultural boundaries familiar to people in interfaith relationships. The message of the film--if one's looking for it--is that America is a place where Israelis and Palestinians can set aside their differences and start fresh. It would be hopelessly naïve if it weren't true. America's Arabs are the least radicalized in the developed world, and Israelis here are typically more consumed with making a living than worrying about Middle Eastern politics.
Despite its relentless caricature of Jews, Arabs, gays, Africans, you name it, You Don't Mess with the Zohan never comes off as mean-spirited. It's downright refreshing in the way it portrays Schneider's friends, who are more concerned with the state of the New York Mets than jihad, and older Jewish women, who are presented as suitable subjects for sexual attraction.
About the only people who could be offended by this movie are Israeli men. Being characterized as too macho, too tough, too ready for sex--we should all have such problems.