You Don’t Mess With the Zohan (*)

You Don’t Mess With the Zohan (*)

Now in his 40s, Adam Sandler is in a deep, widely acknowledged creative funk (correspondingly, he’s gotten meatier and logier-looking, as if he’s been on the same diet and weightlifting regime for too long). Last year’s I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry wasn’t as execrable as fearful liberals said it was (the Alexander Payne–Jim Taylor–Barry Fanaro script actually had many bright moments), but Sandler’s performance was distinctly turgid. With You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, Sandler returns to co-writing after a hiatus (his last effort was in 2002’s animated Eight Crazy Nights, and before that 2000’s Little Nicky), and he is in poor shape. Zohan regurgitates the conceits of his ’90s comedies, complementing them with a distastefully simple-minded take on contemporary ethnic politics.

Zohan opens in Israel, with its titular Mossad agent hamming it up on the beach with a bevy of scantily clad beauties, and then abruptly getting called to duty. Zohan is a superman against his terrorist enemies (“Rembrandt with a grenade,” says his hummus-slurping father), but he wants more: a stylist job at Paul Mitchell’s in New York, to be exact. So he fakes his own death, goes to America, gets rejected by Mitchell, and finds the only employer in New York that will take him: a down-on-its-luck Palestinian-owned salon. Zohan is a hit with the ladies of the post-menopausal set (whom he shtupps in the back room after their cuts), but his popularity threatens to blow his cover.

True to the Sandler template, Zohan’s plot reconciles itself inoffensively, with peace and love on offer for everyone involved. Still, there’s a unique reek here. Like other Sandler films, Zohan doesn’t spare its stereotypes, but it’s worth mentioning that even though everyone gets it, some get it more than others. Rob Schneider’s Arab cab driver is easily the most unfunny and questionable of the bunch, and it’s conspicuous that none of the film’s other main Arab characters are played by real Arabs (Emmanuelle Chriqui, Zohan’s Palestinian love interest, is Jewish, as are Schneider and Sandler; Italian John Turturro, hitting a new career low, is Zohan’s arch-nemesis).

Whatever this means (some will call it a coincidence; others will point to Sandler’s recent contributions to Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign as evidence of an Israeli bias), it is safe to say that Sandler is in way over his head in attempting to make such subject matter comedic. Zohan may be just another dumb movie, but the conflict it portrays is dire, contentious and immediate in ways even the Cold War—the context for so many good dumb movies—was not. It would take a brilliant, compassionate artist to lift the horror for even one light chuckle; obviously Sandler, and for that matter most of his contemporaries (note that Judd Apatow is one of Zohan’s co-writers), just ain’t it.

You Don’t Mess With the Zohan is now playing at Rainbow Cinemas Market Square (80 Front St. E.), SilverCity Yonge-Eglinton Centre (2300 Yonge St.) and Beach Cinemas (1651 Queen St. E.).