“Israelis and Palestinians remind me of a couple who, after a stormy courtship, finally get married and, one year after they tie the knot, they each cheat on the other: Israelis kept on building settlements and the Palestinians kept on building hate. When you cheat and have war after peace, trust vanishes for a long time.”
So why do I begin a review of the latest Adam Sandler movie with a quote from New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman?
Because, folks, deep down that is what “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” is about: the stubborn silliness and corrosive stupidity of Israeli-Palestinian hatred that is starting to scrape a lot of nerves. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. It’s primarily a satire sandwich garnished with some hilarious Sandleresque slapstick. It’s a dash of “Borat,” a slathering of “Spider-Man,” a sprinkle of 007 sauce, a spicy sendup of that ’70s Warren Beatty comedy “Shampoo,” and, in the midst of it all, a superhero Jewish agent who would rather be a hairdresser.
It’s Sandler as Zohan Dvir, a buffed-up killer who, sick and tired of all the enmity, abandons the killing game and comes to America, apprenticing in a lower Manhattan salon run by Emmanuelle Chriqui. When his chance comes, he shampoos and services a neighborhood of ladies old enough to be his mother in ways that make them coo and moan with orgasmic ecstasy. This Oedipal revelry is just this side of R-rated ribaldry, just respectable enough to get that PG-13 stamp to ensure attendance by kids under 17.
’You Don’t Mess With the Zohan’
DIRECTED BY Dennis Dugan
SCREENPLAY BY Judd Apatow, Adam Sandler and Robert Smigel
STARRING Adam Sandler, John Turturro, Lainie Kazan, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Rob Schneider and Nick Swardson
RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes
It’s Sandler and company wanting to have it both ways: entertain the adolescent and deliver a political statement meant for grown-ups; but be assured that the satiric thrusts will go over the heads of audiences yearning for a repeat of “The Waterboy” or “Happy Gilmore.” I’m guessing that a certain target audience of guffawing males, teens through 30, will be annoyed, if not confused by having to grapple with the underlying theme.
When Zohan meets the Phantom (John Turturro), his Palestinian arch-enemy on American soil, both wonder why Jews and Arabs can get along in “the same neighborhoods” in America but can’t do the same in the Middle East?
When they congregate during a near riot, one Jew complains to a Palestinian that “We have a hard time here.” Asked why, the Jew responds, “Because we look like you.” It’s a marvelously insightful statement about what the writers see as Arab-Israeli brotherhood. Never mind that the entire riot has been fomented by an anti-immigrant, white-bred tycoon who employs rednecks to dress as Middle East terrorists — as if anyone has to remind us about the real enemies within.
Along with Sandler, “Zohan” is co-written by the prolific Judd Apatow (“Superbad” and “Knocked Up”). It is also, I assume, Sandler’s way of informing us that at 42, he wants to say something significant. You might conclude he does not want to be regarded as a common clown, no matter how good he is at it, no matter how much many of his fans want him to turn out adolescent slapstick.
Nothing about “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” is profound or profoundly classic; it’s both wildly uneven and intermittently entertaining, mostly because it wants to fuse lowbrow comedy with a satiric punch. Hard to do unless you are a comic genius like Charlie Chaplin. With satire comes the danger of alienating a core audience, for as George S. Kaufman famously said: “Satire is what closes on Saturday night.”
Still, give Sandler credit for not playing it safe in a movie featuring cameos from Mariah Carey, Henry Winkler, Kevin James and John McEnroe.