You Don’t Mess With the Zohan
I don’t really understand who the target audience for You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is supposed to be. A lot of critics derisively label it, and other films in it category, as intended for twelve-year old boys. It’s not hard to see where they might get that impression. The comedy is uniformly broad, childishly perverse, or altogether stale. I can’t imagine an adult being amused by endless references to Adam Sandler’s erections, or the mere reference to hummus, or an inordinate amount of absurd accents, but these are exactly the sorts of things that the movie traffics in. It seems too obscene for children, yet embarrassingly low-brow for adults. It seems to exist for nobody in particular, but due to the enduring popularity of Sandler’s output, I suppose the converse is actually true: it appeals to everybody.
Adam Sandler understands that there are certain things that the American public loves in their comedies, and that is gay panic. Hence, the titular Zohan (tee-hee, he said titular) is introduced as a bionic counter-terrorism operative for the Israeli military, but harbors a secret desire to become a famous hairdresser. It’s a secret because anytime anybody finds out about this desire, they’re sure to call him a fagola – an obscure Yiddish term which allows Sandler and company to say the word “faggot” without any repercussions. Including a character who is actually gay and setting up a group of white supremacists as goofy villains allows the movie to get away with this because, hey, we’re all on the same side here! Similarly, the bulk of the jokes revolve around stereotypes surrounding Israelis and Palestinians – can someone tell me why the hell an Adam Sandler comedy is tackling the problems in the Middle East? In any case, it’s just an excuse to make jokes about A-rabs being terrorists or call-center operators that also drive taxi cabs. In perhaps the most offensive moment in the film, a single phone call sends hundreds of Israeli-Americans to secret alcoves in their various small businesses where guns, grenades, and rocket launchers are being stored. But hey, it’s all done in pursuit of a half-assed buy-the-world-a-Coke conclusion that posits the preposterous notion that everbody ought to just get along. Happy Madison Productions really gets the plight of the common man, man.
So Zohan moves to America with the dream of becoming a famous hair stylist, and after a short setback where he fails miserably at the job, he gets a second chance in the shop of obvious love interest Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui). He doesn’t prove himself as a hair stylist, though. He never does, in fact: the movie is not interested in showing the hero as a master beautician, and save for a few voila! presentations of new haircuts, the actual job takes a backseat to that which the film finds much more interesting. Namely, funny accent Sandler having sex with old women. If you think it’s hilarious to watch merchandise fall off of a shelf due to the pounding on the other side of the wall that accompanies raucous sexual intercourse, complete with the loud moaning of women over the age of eighty, well you’re in luck! That exact scene happens at least half a dozen times. Zohan adheres to a tried and true method of cinematic composition: if something works, repeat and repeat until the joke has been bled dry. You might think that one joke about black-market electronics being passed off as name-brand would be enough, but you’re not thinking big picture: how many different shades of that one joke can we fit into this film? How many different characters can we get in on this? How long until the bottom drops out?
And of course, our man Zohan is called back into action when the most evil terrorist in the world, Phantom (John Turturro, once again proving that he has absolutely no shame whatsoever) shows up in New York to finish a job that was started long ago. Phantom can be a total super-star one moment, a blubbering baby the next as the script calls for it. Both Zohan and the Phantom are super-men, so their fight sequences with one another are brutally goofy – a sublimely silly and cartoonish treat, a great counter-point in the face of the awful attempts at humor in dialogue found throughout the rest of the movie. Watching Turturro run along a ceiling or Sandler leap through the ocean like a dolphin, I could imagine for a second why it might be fun to be a part of creating that kind of ridiculous scene; I could imagine pitching wacky ideas around the table with friends, laughing all the while and working out the details on how a given concept might be ironed out. It’s just not as easy to imagine that creative passion in scenes of two men dry-humping an older woman’s shoulders. Additionally, it’s too easy to hear the sound of crickets when I envision the person at the writer’s table who suggested falling back on a joke about a man who wanted to be a hand model. How on earth did this find its way into the finished film – again, multiple times?
I’d like to end on a positive note, by maintaining that You Don’t Mess With the Zohan is at least not as bad as it could have been. But really, how much worse could it have been? I was recently unimpressed with the Jason Bateman vehicle Horrible Bosses, but compared to this film that movie is a shining example of control – keeping its characters in line, true to what had been previously established as their motivation, and with a clear character arc. Zohan can’t manage any of that, content to function more as a series of sketches tied together loosely by a general idea of where the movie wants to end up. Time for a clever wrap-up to the review…
Here’s a better title for this movie: Don’t Bother With the Zohan.