Remember the bit toward the beginning of Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up when Seth Rogen and his mostly Jewish buds are at a bar talking about what a great film Munich is? “In every movie with Jews, we’re the ones getting killed. Munich flips it on its ear,” Rogen’s character rhapsodizes. “We’re capping motherfuckers. If any of us gets laid tonight, it’s because of Eric Bana.”
That’s a great scene, and I can understand not only why it inspired Adam Sandler to make a movie, but also why he thought it might be a good idea to bring Apatow on board. I’m just speculating about the genesis of You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, of course. But what are the odds that’s not the case, given the picture’s premise and the fact that Apatow was invited to cowrite the script?
Still, something tells me we’re not going to find ourselves one day watching a scene in which beer buds invoke Sandler’s latest comedy with the reverence Rogen accorded to Munich. The actor stars here in the role of an Israeli counter-terrorist commando who is a national hero and sex symbol, despite the fact that he works for a covert intelligence agency. The Zohan is a haphazard composite of Rambo, Spiderman and Austin Powers. He has superhuman, gravity-defying, completely unexplained powers, a codpiece the size of a canned ham, and a secret desire to leave the endless Israeli-Palestinian bickering behind and become (ba da bum!) a hairstylist.
Which he sneaks off to the U.S. and does, with the core joke being that he’s tonsorially stuck in the ’80s. As a young man, the Zohan got his hands on a 1987 Paul Mitchell catalogue and studied the puffy coifs in private, not realizing a new edition is published every year. This explains why, once he gets a job in a salon owned by a beautiful young Palestinian woman (Emmanuelle Chriqui), most of his ’dos look like variations on a Pat Benatar album cover. It doesn’t explain, however, his obsession with disco, just one of the movie’s running gags that quickly run out of steam.
Like Austin Powers, the Zohan speaks with a comical accent, is equal parts secret agent and rock star, and has one foot in this decade and the other in a past one; also like Powers, the Zohan is enormously fond of shagging. In fact, he becomes the most popular stylist in the city by providing that service to his geriatric clients following their shampoo and cut. Another running gag that gets old fast.
And, again like Austin Powers, the Zohan has an arch-enemy. John Turturro costars as a superstar terrorist known as the Phantom. Unlike Dr. Evil, though, this character offers very little that’s particularly original or amusing. He’s simply a cartoon of an evildoer.
Sandler sets his story in a mythical New York neighborhood where immigrants from Palestine own businesses on one side of the street and Jewish people operate shops on the other. For the most part, they live in harmony. Perhaps the funniest thing about Zohan, in fact, is that it’s meant to be a movie with a message: “We can all just get along!” the caricatures in this microcosmic melting pot practically bellow.
Whenever tensions flare, all it takes is a little comedy to relieve them. At one point, for example, one group accuses the other of defacing a storefront. (The vandalism’s actually the handiwork of hoodlums hired by a villainous urban developer who wants to clear out the neighborhood and turn it into a gleaming shopping center, but that subplot’s so time-worn and tiresome we won’t go into it.) One minute, the ancient enemies appear close to rumbling. The next, they’re swapping naughty jokes about which politically prominent female — Obama’s wife, McCain’s or Hillary (“Ooh, those heavy legs!”) — would be most fun to get into bed. Locker-room humor. The universal language.
Sandler and company deserve credit, I suppose, for having the gall to appropriate the crisis in the Middle East, global terrorism and post-9/11 paranoia as fodder for a dumb-fest. They would have deserved more, of course, if they’d actually pulled it off. A silly, rambling, cameo-padded, scattershot exercise in self-indulgence, the actor’s latest ranks with Little Nicky as one of the most tedious things he has inflicted on the screen. Meanwhile, Apatow’s influence is nowhere in evidence.
Almost two hours of hummus gags, plus the mandatory appearance by Rob Schneider — you do the math. You Don’t Mess With the Zohan doesn’t add up to a whole lot more than an excuse for its star to get together with friends, goof around, and go home with a paycheck as oversized as his character’s package.