You Don't Mess with the Zohan (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
You Don't Mess with the Zohan Poster

Watching You Don't Mess with the Zohan is a little like watching an episode of the TV show of which Adam Sandler is an alum: Saturday Night Live. Zohan feels like an extended collection of skits tied together by a flimsy umbrella story. It features cameos by second-tier celebrities (George Takei, John McEnroe) and has a musical "guest" (Mariah Carey). As is too often the case with today's SNL, humor is at a premium, a lot of supposedly "clever" material isn't remotely funny, and the whole thing feels like it should be over a lot sooner than it is. The result is another flabby comedy that gets its biggest laughs from thinly-covered penises and bare buttocks.

On some level, Zohan wants viewers to believe it's entering "daring" waters by its application of politically incorrect comedy to socio-political issues. (One wonders whether the filmmakers thought they were following in Borat's footsteps.) So it lampoons various aspects of Judaism, the Middle East conflict, homosexuality (central to Sandler's previous outing, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry), and which wives of the current crop of Presidential candidates (or, in one case, the candidate herself) are "bang-able." The problem is that while this material may be outlandish and in questionable taste, it's not funny. Maybe there's a chuckle to be found in how many uses the characters find for hummus, but like many of the jokes in Zohan, this one is beaten until it's far past the point of death. Sandler does this a lot here: uncovers something amusing then repeatedly goes back to it until it has become tedious. In many ways, that's a description of the production as a whole.

Zohan (Sandler) is an Israeli James Bond who loves disco dancing and secretly dreams of moving to New York and becoming a hair stylist. He's fed up of the never-ending Middle East conflict and just wants to live in peace where he can enjoy hummus and Fizzy Bubbly, and make everyone's hair silky smooth. A battle with his arch enemy, The Phantom (John Turturro), allows Zohan to fake his own death. He then escapes to New York where he changes his look and name (now "Scrappy Coco") and goes to work for a Palestinian hairdresser named Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui), whose accent is almost as bad as his. He graduates from unpaid sweeper to star stylist, as his sensual manner of washing women's hair (followed by loud, animal sex in a backroom) makes him a top attraction. The film also incorporates subplots about an egomaniacal land tycoon (Michael Buffer - although they should have gotten Donald Trump) and a romance between Zohan and Dalia.

As directed by longtime Sandler cohort and frequent collaborator, Dennis Dugan, the movie opens with some energy but quickly descends into the doldrums. Once the film gets to New York, it becomes repetitive and long-winded. The proceedings get an occasional jolt of energy when Zohan uses his superspy abilities to defeat criminals, but there are too few instances of this. The movie's middle section is primarily comprised of scenes of elderly women looking disheveled as they exit the back room where Zohan has taken them as a part of their "hair styling." The film pays so little attention to the attraction between Zohan and Dalia that the only reason it doesn't come as a complete surprise is because it's a given in comedies like this that the lead man must fall in love with the hottest woman.

Once, Adam Sandler was known as one of the bad boys of comedy - an actor who typically played uncouth men in a state of arrested adolescent development, and used those characteristics to comedic effect. These days, Sandler wants to be liked, so he occasionally essays serious roles and his alter-egos in comedies have lost their edge. Despite his willingness to couple with anything female and his Monty Python-esque accent, Zohan is pretty boring. "Pretty" also applies to Emmanuelle Chriqui. She's eye candy for the teenage boys who comprise Sandler's core audience. John Tuturro is underused and unfunny. Then there's Rob Schneider, Sandler's buddy, who once again proves that a one scene appearance is too much screen time - and here he's given a lot more than just one scene. His subplot about a terrorist taxi cab driver out to get Zohan is a complete dud, and not only because Schneider fails to elicit a single laugh.

Even die-hard Sandler lovers will likely acknowledge that their hero isn't firing on all cylinders here. We go to these movies to laugh at dumb, crude things and, while You Don't Mess with the Zohan offers plenty of crass, stupid material, not a lot of it is funny, even on a base level. For every successful gag, there are perhaps ten that don't work or that try so hard that they lose their appeal. As a ten-minute skit on Saturday Night Live, You Don't Mess with the Zohan might have worked. As a two-hour movie, it lacks the comedic energy to rise above a middling crowd of forgettable summer movies.

You Don't Mess with the Zohan (United States, 2008)

Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 2008-06-06
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1