You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (review)

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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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Count Shrimpula
Fri, Jun 06, 2008 10:20pm

Cool, great review. I might have to go check that out.

One nitpick (and full disclosure, I say this as someone who does not hate Adam Sandler, who enjoyed Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore) I think it’s an important distinction to make between hating Adam Sandler, and hating Adam Sandler (TM) movies. I can definitely see how one would hate his movies, despite liking some of them myself, it’s not hard to see them not being someone else’s cup of tea. But from everything I’ve heard, Sandler is one of the nicest guys in show business. He seems like someone who, whatever you think of his movies, it’d be hard to hate in person. And his appearance on The Daily Show last night was a good example of that. He was very fun with Jon Stewart.

Sat, Jun 07, 2008 12:13am

I think it’s an important distinction to make between hating Adam Sandler, and hating Adam Sandler (TM) movies.

I would hope that that’s always a given. I don’t know Adam Sandler — I only know what I see on the screen. I have no reason to doubt that he’s a perfectly lovely guy in real life. But that doesn’t have a lot to do with what he usually is on the screen. And that’s all I’m ever really talking about.

Sun, Jun 08, 2008 2:25am

Actually, I thought the thing with the hummus and the weird soda was supposed to be making fun of product placement. For a while, anyway. There were many prominent shots of several foreign brands of beverage and snack, including that candy bar Zohan is conspicuously eating during the briefing. Granted, they eventually got off track a bit with the hummus, but until then I was amused. To their credit, at least that one exec did admit that it was a “rather tasty” diarrhea-like substance. I am a huge fan of hummus, and I think the description is fair.

I wasn’t planning to see this, but your ringing endorsement (read: startling lack of loathing) sold me on it. Like you, I was surprised at how horrible it wasn’t! Really odd and uneven, but I totally see what they were going for, and they actually didn’t land too far from the mark. As you said, it mainly just needs a few of the subplots toned down or removed entirely.

Maurice Webb
Maurice Webb
Mon, Jun 09, 2008 1:36am

I watched a little of this at work today. I’m pretty sure it was the end unfortunately, but yeah, I too was pleasantly surprised.

I was just supposed to pop in and check the theatre, but the next thing I know fifteen minutes had passed, and I was chuckling earnestly in spite of myself.

Maurice Webb
Maurice Webb
Mon, Jun 09, 2008 10:13pm

So yeah, I watched the entire film tonight, and while I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the movie, Adam Sandler’s humor is really heavy-handed.

To me it’s like, “Get it guys? They’re Israeli’s and they like Hummus! Get it? See? It’s funny!”

I don’t know if that makes sense, but yeah. That’s pretty much how I view every Adam Sandler flick since “The Wedding Singer”

Mon, Jun 16, 2008 9:05am

This movie stunk. I have seen several of Sandlers movies and enjoyed them, but this one in my opinion is the worst movie of the year. The audience seemed to echo my opinion. Complete silence during most of the movie (full house). I WANT MY MONEY BACK!!!!!

Fri, Jun 20, 2008 3:44am

i havent seen the movie yet but i think people should stop saying they want their money back its not the theaters fault you diddnt like the movie!
my sister sat in pee in a movie once and i think that is a reason to want your money back not for thinking a movie is crap

im not saying the movie isnt crap im just saying its stupid to want your money back!

Fri, Jun 20, 2008 11:29am

It’s not stupid to want your money back: I think more people should ask for their money back when a movie is terrible. If there was a financial disincentive to make bad movies — as there is not today — perhaps we’d have fewer of them.

Fri, Jun 20, 2008 2:35pm

As a former theater manager (please, please, don’t all start bowing at once), my advice is to ask for a refund within the first half-hour of the movie. If you’re persistent, you will get it. At the very least, you might be allowed to theater hop to a possibly better movie as long as it isn’t sold out.

If you wait a little longer (up to an hour), you may be able to complain your way to some free passes if you state your case calmly and refuse to budge. However, if you sit there and watch the whole movie, it is a bit silly to demand your money back. There’s nothing wrong with expressing regret as Maurice is doing, but you can’t eat an entire plate of food and then demand a full refund from the restaurant because it tasted awful. Well… I guess you can, but the obvious question is “Why did you keep eating? Were you honestly expecting a magical last bite that would redeem everything else?”

I guess in some circumstances, you just sit there and suffer to avoid ruining the evening by making a scene, and it can be fun and constructive to try and rewrite the movie in your head. But as a snobby movie lover, the thought of my precious, precious money helping to finance bad movies is so repellent, that I’m perfectly willing to abandon family and friends if they don’t share my impulse to flee. Sadly, the choices we make about our disposable income seem to make a larger difference in this world than our choices in the voting booth.

Dan Duquette
Dan Duquette
Tue, Jun 24, 2008 2:01am

Ahhh, I love this review, I’m not a fan of Adam Sandler.. at all, and I thought this movie was half decent. I do however, love Turturro. I normally don’t like “stupid funny” but even WITH Adam Sandler, (don’t you just wish that his middle name started with an “S”) they pulled it off.

Wed, Jun 24, 2009 6:12pm

As an arab, I loved this movie! I loved the underlying theme and the thing is the stuff with the fizzlybubblech and hummus is more of an inside joke to F.O.Bs (Fresh off the boat), if you’re not in the culture you won’t understand it as much. That’s what I liked about the movie that there were those little instances that went beyond just stereotyping arabs and Jews.