You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (review)

Not Messing With the Zohan

I don’t think I’ve ever been more surprised by a movie than I was with You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. Because I hate Adam Sandler. I hate him. It’s just what I do. It’s just part of who I am. Yeah, I’ve not hated him once or twice, when he’s not doing the Adam Sandler(TM) thing — okay, once, in Punch-Drunk Love, not so much in Reign Over Me, though I respect that he tried — but still: the Adam Sandler(TM) thing? I hate it.

And yet it’s awesome, in the original meaning of that word, as in “inspiring awe,” that I didn’t hate Zohan. Because when you love movies, you don’t want to hate any individual instance of them. You always want to love movies, and it’s always a crushing blow when you hate one, even when you fully expected to hate it.

I’m overstating a little: I cannot honestly say that I loved Zohan. But in a relative sense, given my history with Sandler, it is a huge admission to me to say that I kinda got a kick out of this silly movie. And I don’t mean that I’m embarrassed to admit publicly that I didn’t hate an Adam Sandler(TM) movie. I’m talking about admitting to myself that my preconceptions were wrong, in this case. But that’s amazing. It’s awesome to be proven wrong. It feels really, really good, actually. Because it means you’re still capable of being surprised… and when it comes to entertainment, surprise is key.

It’s not like Zohan isn’t a mess. It is a mess, beset by random subplots that loom out of nowhere and narrative detours that the most cursory of script editing could have mended, and it’s a little too madly in love with the ethnic stereotypes it bandies about in place of smarter humor. And it takes a while to reveal itself as not being yet another instance of Adam Sandler-style juvenilia… though as Sandler might have called it in this case, Jew-venilia. For Sandler here is Zohan, an Israeli counterterrorism commando, and much humor is mined — or attempted to be mined — from suchness as the apparent humorousness of hummus and foreign fizzy drinks meant to be funny to American audiences purely because, you know, they’re foreign and come in oddly shaped bottles. Which made me groan. Hummus is yummy.

But then I was startled to find myself laughing at a few bits, early on in the film, as Zohan goes up against his nemesis, Palestinian terrorist The Phantom (played by John Turturro, and it’s kinda hard to pick at the fact that they cast an Italian-American as a Middle Easterner because he’s pretty damn funny in the role). For there are some genuinely unexpected laughs — ones that don’t rely on, as the Sandler brand of humor typically does, assuming that all adults are secretly 12-year-olds inside who are afraid of absolutely anything unfamiliar — to be found in sending up the outrageousness of action movies. (“I feel no pain,” Zohan tells The Phantom amidst their big battle, “I tell you this other fights.” That’s funny, partly because of how it implies not only a long history that we haven’t seen but also because it gets out in the open the obvious pointlessness, in a dramatic sense, of evenly matched superopponents — if no one can ever win, why are we even watching?) The early sections of the film reminded me of when Zucker and Abrahams were still funny, as with Top Secret! and Hot Shots!: you know, goofy and silly but not stupid.

I figured it couldn’t last, though, and surely things would revert to the usual Sandler schtick once Zohan comes to America, because he’s tired of being the world’s best soldier and wants merely to indulge his dream of being a hairdresser. How could the movie possibly escape the inevitable taunting, terrified, “what a fag!” destiny that seemed to be in store for it?

And yet it does. And again, I do not wish to overstate. There is much messiness in store for Zohan once the action moves to New York City, and Zohan finds himself rebuffed by the Paul Mitchell Salon on Fifth Avenue — for he is utterly inexperienced as a hairdresser — and is forced to take a menial job sweeping up cut hair in a beauty parlor in an unnamed ethnic neighborhood that could well be called Little Left Bank: here, Arab and Jew live together in harmony, and eat a lot of hummus. Rob Schneider as an Arab cab driver is unfortunate; some of the actually ethnically appropriate actors are not: Daoud Heidami is kind of adorable as the clueless naif who ends up in Schneider’s sphere.

But the really vital thing here is that Zohan avoids that pitfall that brings down this genre of nutty comedy far more often than not: there’s nothing meanspirited about it. It’s crude in many ways, sure — the sexual humor is frank and nonstop — but it’s never vulgar, and in fact it’s often strikingly sweet. Zohan ends up making a name for himself as a hairdresser not only because it turns out that he’s quite an artist with the scissors but also because he genuinely loves women: women of all ages, of all shapes and sizes, and he is more than happy to treat his elderly clients to a little something extra along with their haircuts and dye jobs. And by “a little something extra” I mean a quick bang in the supply closet… which is not, as other Adam Sandler-esque movies might have it, a chore for him, and Zohan turns the expected angle on its head by not taking the tack of laughing at the mere idea of old women as sexual creatures. It’s silly, sure, but it’s not dirty — it’s exuberant, and Zohan is insatiable in the same way that Austin Powers is randy, as a celebration rather than something to be embarrassed about. Hey, sex is fun! the movie seems to cheer. Fun for everyone!

It’s all about tone, like I’ve said many times before. A comedy about terrorism? And this is a comedy about terrrorism as much as it is a comedy about a supposed uber-macho commando who wants to be a hairdresser, because of course The Phantom shows up again in New York to haunt Zohan. (And there’s a whole really terrible subplot that involves White Folk stirring up Arab-Jew animosity, which is part of the side of the movie that doesn’t work so well.) But if you do it right, even the most outrageous concepts can work… and Zohan is almost right, because it doesn’t laugh at innocent people being hurt or religious brainwashing that turns otherwise ordinary people into killing machines — it laughs at the fact that we make mountains out of molehills, that we magnify the sma

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