If they haven’t already, the powers that be at Final Draft, Inc. should create a screenplay template purely for Adam Sandler movies. Elements could include: a fish out of water protagonist (played by Sandler, natch); a drop-down menu containing a variety of dirty jokes that toddle the PG-13 line between stupid and obscene; a soundtrack that is mostly 80s music; and an automatically generated Rob Schneider role, preferably a broad caricature of a foreigner. Shoehorn all that into a standard Average Joe triumphs over evil plot and voila, instant “Billy Madison/Happy Gilmore/Mr. Deeds.”
Sandler’s latest is “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan,” which follows the aforementioned criteria admirably. Sandler plays the titular Zohan, a Mossad agent of comically prodigious skills (he stops bullets with his nostrils and outswims a jetski). Yet despite his knack for taking down terrorists, he secretly longs to quit fighting Palestinians and become a hairdresser. When Zohan reveals his plans to his parents, he is predictably mocked as a faygele, so he does the only thing he can: fakes his own death at the hands of the dreaded Phantom (John Turturro) and hops a cargo flight to New York City, where – upon his rejection by the swanky Paul Mitchell salon – he gets a job sweeping hair under the alias “Scrappy Coco” at a salon owned by Palestinian hottie Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui).
No spoiler alerts are necessary from this point: Zohan rises to haircutting glory and ultimately does battle with both greedy WASP developers (bent on knocking down the district where Jewish and Arab merchants do business in relative peace) and the Phantom’s expat disciples. Along the way, there are the expected cameos (Mariah Carey and Dave Matthews in a nice turn as a white supremacist) and the same brickheaded humor that characterizes all Sandler movies.
There are also two related yet widely disparate components at work. In the first place, it says something about how we’ve come to terms with 9-11 when a mainstream Hollywood comedy can unabashedly goof on terrorism and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Gags like Hezbollah’s automated phone menu and Zohan and the Phantom batting a grenade back and forth with paddles are broad swipes at a serious issue; and of course the “we’re the same after all” resolution comes after nearly two hours of a*s and pubic hair jokes. None of this is really surprising, as no one ever accused Sandler of being a satirist. Hell, the main reason Zohan becomes the most popular barber in the area is because he vigorously shtupps the old ladies who come in for their rinses.
And yet with “Zohan,” Happy Madison has created perhaps its most narrowly focused movie. It remains to be seen how familiar all those flyover country goyim are going to be with the concept of Jewish electronics salesmen, the Israeli obsession with disco, or obscure Middle Eastern soft drinks. And I still don’t know whether the ongoing hummus shtick (Zohan uses is for everything from toothpaste to lube) was over my head or simply typical Sandler overkill.
Were there laughs to be had? Sure, but even a “Dorf on Golf” videotape has its moments. Writers Sandler, Robert Smigel, and… wait for it… Judd Apatow provide a few guffaws that, while cheap, are hearty enough. High points include Lainie Kazan as the mother of the young man who takes Zohan in and Kevin Nealon as the timid neighborhood watch participant. On the other end of the scale, Rob Schneider once again shows his dramatic range by adopting a pidgin accent, this time as Salim, a Palestinian with a long-running grudge against Zohan.
In truth, there’s not much point to reviewing Adam Sandler comedies. They’re almost always widely panned, and yet still manage to earn well over $100 million domestically. “Don’t Mess with the Zohan” looks to continue both trends, even if exaggerated Yiddish accents and sex with the elderly only take one so far.