Director: Dennis Dugan
Starring: Adam Sandler, Emmanuelle Chriqui, John Turturro, Rob Schneider, Lainie Kazan, Nick Swardson, Ido Mosseri, Michael Buffer
Running Time: 118 min.
*** (out of ****)
You Don’t Mess With The Zohan is the kind of comedy where your mind is made up that you’ll hate it even before the opening credits roll. I know mine was. Adam Sandler’s track record hasn’t exactly been stellar of late and the film’s posters, starring his crotch, didn't implore me to change my prediction. Combine that with the fact that this film’s director, Dennis Dugan, made one of Sandler’s worst comedies, last year’s dreadful I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, there was virtually no chance this could be any good. Thankfully, it was the Dennis Dugan that directed Happy Gilmore who decided to show up for work instead and he brought THAT Sandler with him.
This doesn’t recapture the hilarious highs of Sandler’s mid-90’s output, but it’s his first comedy in a while that knows its goal and accomplishes it. It’s a just a stupid, mindless fun that’s laugh-out loud funny and actually a lot less stupider than you’d imagine. It’s almost a relief to see a movie revel in absurdity like this after watching a downer like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a “comedy” that should have screened in couples therapy sessions instead of theaters. Coincidentally, producer of that film, Judd Apatow, co-wrote this, which just further proves he’s at his strongest when handling stupid material. It’s also a reminder that comedies only have one job: To make us laugh. There are different ways to get there and this one’s route is pretty standard, but it works.
When Sandler brings his “A” game (or at least B+) you start to notice the difference between him and someone like Will Ferrell, who always looks like he’s working hard to get laughs (recently harder than ever). Sandler’s just got it and this movie introduces us to one of his most bizarre, over-the-top characters, which is saying a lot. All of this would be enough to recommend the picture, but when you also thrown in a bunch of inspired cameos that are hilarious not only because of who they are and what they do, but the enormity of their roles, you have one of Sandler’s better recent comedies.
The Zohan (Sandler) is an Israeli counter-terrorist with a love for hair styling, disco dancing and hummus. When he’s not fighting baddies like The Phantom (John Turturro), he dreams of escaping the violence in his own country to come to America and work under his idol, hairstylist Paul Mitchell (who unsurprisingly appears as himself at one point). He sees his opening after a battle with The Phantom and fakes his own death, fleeing to New York City to embark on his new career path. Now going under the moniker “Scrappy Coco” he goes to work for feisty Palestinian hairstylist Dalia (Entourage’s Emmanuelle Chriqui) and soon graduates from janitorial duty to actually cutting hair. But the more popular Scrappy becomes (especially with the elderly women) the more at risk he is of having his secret identity exposed, specifically by a terrorist taxi driver (Rob Schneider) with a grudge. He must also save the neighborhood from a greedy Trump-like real estate developer played by Michael Buffer (yes, the ring announcer!)
I’ll be the first to admit that on paper few movies would probably look as awful as this: A slapstick comedy about terrorism set in New York City starring Adam Sandler. Somehow though, against all odds, Dugan and Sandler make it work. I couldn’t believe I was actually laughing at stuff this stupid but I was. With its foreign fish out of water plot the movie almost aims to be a scripted, fictionalized version of Borat, throwing the clueless protagonist in a foreign land and just watching everyone react to him. The result is supposed to bring ethnic stereotypes (or at least perceptions of them) to the forefront. This isn’t as subtle or clever as that film and it doesn’t for a second pretend to be. The sole purpose of this movie is to watch Sandler act like an idiot, and honestly, few do it better. He really lets himself go loose like a wild man here, which he hasn’t done in some of his other recent efforts.
The jokes come a mile a minute, they’re cheap and easy, but most of them hit thanks to him. The early fight scenes are hilariously choreographed, establishing The Zohan’s goofiness and ineptitude, yet seemingly superhuman physical prowess. When he gets to New York the story kicks into high gear, especially the scenes at the hair salon. Yes, sure it’s stupid, but there’s a montage of The Zohan cutting old ladies’ hair and then having his way with them in the back room when he’s done that had me cracking up. And I’m sorry, when one of those women happens to be Mrs. Garrett from The Facts of Life, its funny. And that just scratches the surface as far as some of the bizarre cameos that occur throughout the film, some I can’t spoil. But a few I can.
Mariah Carey has a role late in the film that’s ridiculously large, as if the producers were so impressed with her work in Glitter that they expanded the third act to showcase her. She’s hilariously awful, but that’s the point. Rob Schneider is surprisingly not awful in his role as a terrorist cabbie which comes as a relief after his unfunny, bordering on offensive, turn as an Asian stereotype in Chuck and Larry. This was the first movie in years I can recall where Schneider actually got some laughs from me, specifically a scene where we witness his characters’ lack of negotiating skills.
The casting of non-actor Michael Buffer as an arrogant tycoon is so random and insane that it’s actually kind of brilliant. I won’t try to convince anyone he’s worthy of an AFI tribute for his performance but boy was it hilarious seeing him in the role and he gets off some great lines. Even funnier is the casting of his right-hand man, a well- known musician in mustachioed disguise as a racist, xenophobic, homophobic redneck stereotype.
The big mistake Chuck and Larry made was attempting to be politically correct and tell a real story. In doing that it unintentionally came off more offensive than it could have ever been otherwise. Here, the goofy script (co-written with Apatow by Sandler and Saturday Night Live’s Robert Smigel) frees them up to lampoon foreign stereotypes and the laughs come much smoother because of it. Considering relations between Jews and Palestinians in a post-9/11 world isn’t exactly the most promising subject for parody, that this is consistently funny most of the way through is somewhat of a miracle.
Also, watch for Nick Swardson’s priceless facial expressions as the put-upon loser who gets roped into inviting Zohan to stay with him and his overweight mother (played by Lainie Kazan). Strangely, this is actually one of Sandler’s more likable characters, missing that mean streak that has become a trademark of his worst outings. His antics thankfully this time result from stupidity rather than nastiness. The romance between him and Chriqui’s character works fine and accomplishes what it needs to while not feeling forced or tacked on.
There’s a trend that been occurring lately with these comedies, where hour and a half versions of them are released in theaters, then they hit DVD with longer, unrated special editions. I hope it stops, but given how much money the studios make on them, we know that’s not happening anytime soon. There’s just no need for a slapstick comedy like this to ever be 118 minutes.
With dramas I see where there could be a need for an unrated, extended cut (and a few of them have been superior to the theatrical one) but for comedies like this it’s pointless. Their stories are thinner, things need less fleshing out and usually the tighter the running time the better. That said, I didn’t feel this dragged during its nearly 2-hour running time and was thoroughly entertained, which only makes me imagine how much better and tighter the 90-minute theatrical version is. A scary thought. That’s the one I probably should have watched. I also don't really care about watching outtakes and hearing about how much fun they had on the set on the SUPER DUPER UNRATED OVEREXTENDED UNCUT UNCIRMCUMCISED UNPROTECTED SHAKE AND SHIMMY 15-DISC EDITION, only to be replaced next year with a better edition when its sequel is released and you can get a free movie ticket inside. This isn’t There Will Be Blood or The Dark Knight. There are no benefits to hearing in excruciating detail how it was made.
After his bids for dramatic respectability in films like Punch-Drunk Love and last years’ Reign Over Me were met with commercial indifference, Sandler (a lot like Ferrell and Jim Carrey) has returned to the slapstick comedy he knows best. That regressive career trajectory is only a problem if the movies aren’t funny. But this is. Anyone who can’t stand Sandler will hate it but devotees who appreciate when his humor is channeled in the right direction will find a lot to like in You Don’t Mess With The Zohan. Is he above this type of thing already? Absolutely. Should he move on? No doubt. But he’s entitled to have some fun every once in a while… and so are we.