[6 June 2008]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
As Salim, a New York cabbie and aspiring terrorist, Rob Schneider is as offensive as you’d expect. Seeing as he’s made it his business of late to play the ethnic-race-national stereotype in Adam Sandler movies, it’s not surprising or even disappointing that Schneider does it again. What is disappointing, however, is that in You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, everyone around him takes up the same vulgar approach to their roles. The result is cacophonous and competitive comedy, more exhausting than fun.
You might see Zohan as a next step after I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, at once perverse and logical. Sandler’s Zohan, a celebrated Mossad agent with a knack for twisting opponents into human pretzels, is introduced via a Tel Aviv beach-vacation sequence. Admired by lusty women and cheering men, he’s excessively masculine (check his gigantically bulging crotch), bizarrely athletic (he catches hacky sacks and then fish in his butt-crack), and broadly “Israeli” (his love of hummus knows no bounds). But still, poor Zohan is not entirely happy with his role in life. The fact that he’s yearned since childhood to be a hairdresser drives his father (Shelley Berman) to call him “fagela” and share a derisive giggle with Zohan’s mother (Dina Doronne). The son resists, assured of his heterosexuality despite his parents’ cruel pigeonholing, and so becomes another version of Sandler’s het-male who represents for Gay Pride.
Just so, Zohan exhibits a slew of queer markers—a fondness for Mariah Carey t-shirts and shortish shorts, and most especially, Paul Mitchell haircuts, “silky smooth.” When he makes his way to New York in search of self-fulfillment, Zohan takes on an alias (“Scrappy Coco,” after the two newly coiffed pooches with whom he flew over in the luggage compartment), then runs smack into the limits of employment for a man with his particular skill set. Unable to comprehend the rejection he receives at the Paul Mitchell HQ (the super-sleek girls laugh at his Mossady acrobatics and especially at his circa-‘80s look), Zohan settles briefly for work at an Israeli electronics warehouse, courtesy of a giddy fan from Israel, Oori (Ido Mosseri), who agrees to keep his identity secret while noting that he’s transformed: “You want to be a hair homo?”
It’s not long before Zohan has found a job on the other side of the street, at a beauty shop run by the Palestinian Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui). At first, he keeps himself distracted from the fact that he’s on this Arab side of the street by giving his old lady clients pink hair and asymmetrical cuts, as well as raucous bang-boom sessions in the back room. Here he finds some weird community with his coworker Claude (Alec Mapa), who provides the queeny counterpart to Zohan’s flamboyant machismo. Just so you’re clear on the lines between gay and not-gay, the movie gives Zohan yet another foil, the exceedingly wussy Michael (Nick Swardson, essentially reprising his fairy part of Chuck & Larry), who invites him home after Zohan rescues him from a bully on the street. When Zohan starts sexing Michael’s New-York-Jewish mom Gail (Lainie Kazan), Michael is appropriately squirmy and horrified, a gag the film repeats because, apparently, doing it once is not nearly enough.
Overkill is surely a defining element in the Sandler oeuvre (as it is in the work of Judd Apatow, who co-wrote the script with Sandler and Sandler’s longtime collaborator Robert Smigel, creator of the Ambiguously Gay Duo). Surrounded as he is by gays and pretty Israeli boys, Zohan maintains his manhood and nationalistic honor via an ongoing feud with a Palestinian terrorist who goes by the Phantom (John Turturro, in full-on lunatic mode: “You think you can oppress my people, land grabber!”). They’re goaded by a Barber Shop-style turf war, occasioned by a developer played by the guy who announces at boxing and professional wrestling bouts, and ignited by a bomb-throwing racist redneck played by Dave Matthews (returning for more fun after his bit part in Chuck & Larry). Sometimes, they notice the sidelines appearances of Schneider’s very stupid, goat-loving troublemaker, and sometimes they flip and contort to show off their CGI-ed fighting skills. For the most part, though, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is treated as an opportunity to slog through the Chuck & Larry formula again. Everyone is headed toward getting along, as long as Sandler’s guy gets to be the guy.
Actually, “formula” probably suggests Zohan has more structure than it does. A disorganized succession of japes and insults, the movie’s politically incorrect but also sloppy and conventional: Zohan is romanced, Salim is reformed, and Mrs. Nick Cannon stops by to sing the U.S. national anthem in the midst of all this globalish noise.