A film review by Craig J. Koban

YOU DON'T MESS WITH THE ZOHAN  j
½ 

2008, PG-13, 91 mins.

Zohan: Adam Sandler / The Phantom: John Turturro / Dalia: Emmanuelle Chriqui / Gail: Lainie Kazan / Salim: Rob Schneider / Mrs. Greenhouse: Charlotte Rae / Kevin: Kevin Nealon / Walbridge: Michael Buffer

Directed by Dennis Dugan /  Written by Adam Sandler, Robert Smigel and Judd Apatow

The premise of Adam Sandler’s new comedy, YOU DON’T MESS WITH THE ZOHAN, is funny.   

Its follow-through...is not.  Sigh.

In the film he stars as anti-terrorism Israeli commando named Zohan that decides that he has had it with battling evildoers in his native country.  It seems that he has fought for the security of his nation under the Israeli Defense forces for too long.  Zohan is, without a shadow of a doubt, a most fiercely gifted military superman, and his exploits are legendary.  Yet, despite his mythic status as a Rambo on steroids, Zohan has more modest aspirations.  He wants to exchange his M-16 for the latest Paul Mitchell style-catalogue and wants to make people “shiny and silky smooth” as a hair stylist in New York. 

On paper, this is kind of hilarious, and I will give minor points to the film for at least having a preposterously entertaining premise that seems ripe for all sorts of comic possibilities.  The incapacitating quandary of ZOHAN is that, when all is said and done, the film is simply not sharp or acerbic enough with the underlining material.  Instead of having a sly and smartly confident parody and satire akin to the AUSTIN POWERS films, ZOHAN very quickly regurgitates into yet another dime-a-dozen, witless, mundane, and depressingly unfunny Sandler comedic vehicle, laced with oodles of crude obligatory jokes about male appendages and bodily fluids, pratfalls that only prepubescent males will appreciate, and sections of the story that are utter comic dead zones that fall so shockingly flat.  

It is now abundantly clear that the former SNL’er has categorically made some of the worst comedies of the last ten years.  Although ZOHAN is not close to being on the same high plateaus of the most putrid of the self-indulgent Sandler stinkfests, it still nevertheless maintains a valueless honor roll moniker.  What’s really curious is that I…well…like Adam Sandler, but the main issue is that he has failed to find a comic vehicle to use his talents to the best effect.  His film resume is like a scandalous criminal record of indignity.  He started his career with one of the worst comedies of the 90’s in BILLY MADISON, followed suit with the marginally better HAPPY GILMORE and THE WEDDING SINGER.  Later films, like the abortively awful LITTLE NICKY and THE WATERBOY, were hard to sit through and more recent attempts at mixing his crude and childish brand of humor with a Capra-esque bent (like BIG DADDY, MR. DEEDS, and – most recently – CLICK), were embarrassingly shallow.  Last time I checked, no Capra film ever had its main character fart into the face of David Hasselhoff.  

However, I do think that Sandler has real talent, especially with his less popular dramatic roles.  He was kind of transcendent playing rigidly against type in James L. Brooks’ highly undervalued SPANGLISH and gave an absolutely haunting performance in the otherwise problematic post-911 drama, REIGN OVER ME (his rock steady dramatic work here made this regrettably uneven and misguided film watchable).  Unfortunately, Sandler’s very decent straight man work in those films failed to find an audience, so I think that he decided to return to familiar and safe waters with ZOHAN and last year’s criminally putrid pro-gay comedy, I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU CHUCK AND LARRY.  

One thing that has emerged from that 2007 film and ZOHAN is interesting: Both films are annoyingly hypocritical.  CHUCK AND LARRY went out of their way to appease audience members to play nice-nice with the homosexual community because they’re people too.  But, that film degenerated into such a laundry list of insulting gay clichés and infantile anti-homosexual jokes that its true motives looked suspiciously cloudy.  ZOHAN has the same effect:  It pleads to be a comedy with its pulse on Israeli-Palestinian relations and Middle Eastern dilemmas, but it's ultimately condescending for how it too gets bogged down in trying to preach peace and tolerance towards its ethnic groups and instead lines up the distasteful stereotypes of all groups mentioned.  

Oh, ZOHAN is also the first comedy about Middle Eastern peace that has a character catch a fish with his bare buttocks. 

As I said, on paper, ZOHAN seems funny…and the film gets a few laughs early on with its premise.  We met Zohan Dvir  (an unusually buff Sandler; he deserves props for looking the part) living the high life as a one-man army commando for the Mossad, Israel’s crack anti-terrorism squad.  We see him on the beach enjoying a little R and R time, which includes dancing with a bunch of unattainably hot babes in bikinis and barbequing in the nude (it’s here where we get the first of far too many jokes involving Zohan’s bare ass and his preference for eating mass quantities of hummus).  Anyhoo’ his superiors catch up with him and ask him to go on one last mission to capture key Palestinian terrorist lazily named the “Phantom” (John Turturro, never generating one decent laugh here), who had been freed by the Israeli government in exchange for a captureD Mossad agent.  Zohan begrudgingly accepts the mission (in the film’s only smartly written scene), but he soon reveals that his real passion is to leave his violent and chaotic world behind and take up the scissors and blow dryers as a hairstylist in the Big Apple.  Gotta admit:  The guy knows what he wants.  He sheepishly reveals to his highly conservative parents what his dream is, which is mocked with ridiculing laughter (his poppa in particular is embarrassed by the news, seeing as he is a veteran of Israel’s Six Day War). 

Zohan does have one final altercation with his terrorist enemy, but instead of successfully apprehending the Phantom, he uses his battle with him to fake his death so he can smuggle himself on a plane to New York to fulfill his destiny.  He changes his appearance and adopts a new name, Scrappy Coco (based on the first names of the two dogs his stowed away with in cargo hold) and finally makes it to America.  Despite his ravenous enthusiasm to learn and become the best stytlist in the city, Zohan fails to secure work.  His early attempts to get jobs at a Paul Mitchell salon and then later an African American and children’s salon are terrible failures.  It's definitely not okay to put a Spockian neck pinch on a young child to knock him out because he's crying on the stylist's chair.

Zohan does get befriended by a young New Yorker named Michael (Nick Swardson) who gives him a place to live and – unfortunately for him – introduces him to his mother (Lainie Kazen).  Zohan is a hospitable and gracious chap to the kindness of Michael’s mother, so much so that he engages in disturbing sex acts with her as payment back (much to Michel’s chagrin).  Hoo-hoo.  A young and viral man having sex with an over the hill chick...how riotous!

Zohan does find work at the salon of a gorgeous (uh-oh) Palestinian woman named Dhalia (the utterly gorgeous Emmanuelle Chriqui from HBO’s ENTOURAGE).  The salon is close to a lower Manhattan block that is filled with Middle Eastern Americans: Israeli on one side and Palestinians on the other…how quaint.  Needless to say, Zohan’s first job is sweeping the floors, but he gets his shot with an older client when one of Dhalia’s workers quits.  Zohan becomes an overnight smash, not only because of his hairstylist skills, but also because of his willingness to screw all – and I mean all – of his elderly female clients in the salon’s storage room right after doing their hair.  Of course, Zohan’s road to fame is impeded by the re-appearance of The Phantom in America, not to mention his feelings towards Dhalia, and the film progresses towards a inevitable climax that sees Zohan trying to restore peace between Palestinians and Israelis in New York, trying to woe the woman of his dreams and getting rid of that Phantom once and for all.

ZOHAN’s script was written by Sandler, SNL writer Robert Smigel and – yes – Judd Apatow, the latter’s presence being felt nowhere here (it has been revealed that he left the project after the first draft in 2000 and never returned, but Sandler being a longtime friend of Apatow’s probably predicated his inclusion on the credit sheet).  The film was to be released years ago, but there was fear of having it come out during the wake of 9/11.  But, the issue with ZOHAN is that it’s not nearly as scathing with the material to elicit criticism.  Instead of being intelligent and sarcastic with its satire, it whimpers down to the level of an inept and cartoonish SNL skit that goes on for far too long for its own good.  At times, the film is virtually an unbearable endurance test to sit through.  Of course, amidst all of the puerile and dumb Sandlerian sight gags and jokes, we have a hooky and sanctimoniously shallow message buried within that Middle Eastern relations could be solved if everyone – dang it –just learned to all get along. 

Even worse…for every joke that gets modest chuckles we get dozens that fall thuddingly flat, failing to elicit even a smirk.  ZOHAN is pampered with way too many jokes about hummus, Zohan’s mighty impressive crotch bulge and his sexual stamina, and mind-numbingly unfunny sequences involving the reliably untalented Rob Schneider playing a Muslim Cabbie that wants to become one with Hezbollah (Schneider garnered embarrassing groans with his playing up to Asian stereotypes in CHUCK AND LARRY, and he does the same here as the ethnic cabbie; not one moment with him generates any merriment and he brings the film down).  We also get a string of needlessly wretched celeb cameos from the likes of Kevin James (co-star of CHUCK AND LARRY), John McEnroe, Mariah Carrey, and – no, seriously – Michael Buffer (of “Let’s get ready to ruuuuummmmbbble” fame) playing the film’s egotistically evil land tycoon and main baddie (???).  The film also offers up the single most embarrassing cameo by a former classic STAR TREK series actor...ever.

Sandwiched in-between all of this is the lackluster and hackneyed romance between Zohan and Dhalia, which hits every perfunctory beat in the book (which facilitates some sort of latent pornographic fantasy that Sandler’s films display with having the hottest women around falling for his hero characters that fail to display any redeeming traits to them).  The film then gets bogged down in the political-social ramifications of their relationship in an attempt to make ZOHAN have a love story about something.  The resulting film is such a broad, relentlessly lewd, and dumb cartoon of a comedy that its various messages just get misplaced altogether.   Any bit that the film could have had with being a corrosive satire is weather-beaten by inexplicable story changes, cumbersome and ill-effective jokes, and bizarrely grotesque gags (a moment involving Zohan and friends playing hacky sack with a live cat is painfully cringe-worthy; animal abuse is rarely funny).

There is a good Adam Sandler comedy to be made, but YOU DON’T MESS WITH THE ZOHAN, alas, is simply another regrettable hiccup along to way.  The film could have been a cutting edge parody and really sunk its teeth into the politically incorrect material, but it's such an unsophisticated and banal comedy that does not even deserve worthy comparisons to a disposable late night comedy sketch.  There are minor giggles to be had here in small dosages, but the comic possibilities are all but blindsided by this film’s odd execution of its choices.  In the end, film viewers certainly should not mess with the ZOHAN as it pulls the ultimate con job: it simultaneously exploits and condemns anti-Middle Eastern sentiment, but perhaps its biggest swindle is that it’s dishonorably void of laughs. 

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