[5 June 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Jewish humor has driven American mirth for as long as their have been baggy pants burlesque comics and joke-stealing vaudevillians. Update it to the pre-modern mirth of Mel Brooks and the post-modern mensching of Woody Allen and you’ve got the current concept of wit in both of its ethnic excesses. But is there such a thing as plain old ‘Jew’ humor, that is, satire based solely on the notion of what an entire race of people find culturally significant and outwardly uncomfortable. Or for that matter, can the entire Middle East crisis be summed up in a series of slapstick sight gags and borderline racist rejoinders? Adam Sadler wants to find out, and he’s bringing along that fascinating flavor of the moment Judd Apatow with him.
As one of Israel’s top anti-terrorist operatives, the Zohan lives the good life. His days are spent semi-clothed on the beach, his nights are taken with tripping up members of radical fundamentalist sects. Of course, he can’t stand the violence and the incomprehensible politics of the region. He just does his job with all the invincibility of a superhero. After once again battling the famed Palestinian rogue The Phantom, Zohan wants out. So he fakes his death and heads to America with a dream of being - a Paul Mitchell hair stylist. Rebuffed by the famed salon, he winds up in the Arab/Israeli section of New York. There, he works for a fetching female shop owner named Dalia. As he plots his move into ‘silky smoothness’, the Phantom discovers Zohan’s still alive - and plots to take him out once and for all.
From the wholly insular and yet perfectly realized fantasy world it creates to the nonstop barrage of ethnic slams, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is a comedy of contradictions. On the one hand, Sandler is back in fully familiar territory. He is putting on an accent, creating a complete camouflage of a character, and sticking with his shtick no matter how uneven or unusual it becomes. At the same time, co-writers Apatow and Robert Smigel reduce the entire Arab world into a series of disco loving, diarrhea inducing soft drink swilling, hacky sack playing Mariah Carrey worshippers. When they’re not arguing policy, they’re playing into every cultural cliché a group of Klansman could possibly conceive.
This is the kind of movie that requires its own unique modifier to describe. Perhaps a nice abbreviation would be “E3” - for “ethnically embarrassing eccentricities”. Sandler and crew then take these ideas and beat them to within an inch of their life. You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is also the classic example of an in sync spoof. Like George W. Bush’s Iraq plan, you’re either for it, or against it. There is no meeting this movie halfway. If you don’t “get” what this story is selling, if you’re offended by the marginalization of an entire race into a series of unattractive targets, you’ll hate everything about the Zohan experience. It’s a gamble on the part of the filmmakers. If they can’t convince the mainstream to embrace this worldview wackiness, it’s straight to the cult classic section - or the cut out bin.
The failure really won’t be Sandler fault. He’s like a Method mirth maker here, so fully immersed in his performance that there are times when we forget we are watching the former SNL slugger. The thick Israeli accent helps, even if some of the faux Yiddish/Hebrew phrases play like an in-joke to inattentive and absent audiences. Far more obvious is John Tuturro as The Phantom. He frequently stands outside the material and makes faces, implying a secret code with the crowd that he’s in on how bizzaro this movie truly is. It would have been nice if he played it straight, a real live terrorist taking on an oversexed ex-Mossad agent with a dizzying dream of blowdryers, but You Don’t Mess with the Zohan goes for something more ungainly - and achieves it more times than not.
Director Dennis Dugan, redeeming himself from the horrid misstep that was last year’s I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, doesn’t let his journeyman blandness undermine the surreality. He applies tricks learned from a dozen different movies (everything from Hong Kong action flicks to Bourne style thrillers) and yet never forgets to let his stars do most of the heavy lifting. Certainly, there is too much Rob Schneider for anyone’s comfort level. What should have been another Sandler comedy cameo turns into a wildly underwritten supporting role, and the whole Israeli/Palestinian divide is treated as a massively misguided goof, a result of location vs. long simmering animosity. Luckily, this movie takes nothing seriously. Not even its retarded redneck vigilantes or tagged on corporate land scheming.
Still, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan remains a tough sell. Anyone coming in expecting Happy Gilmore or Billy Madison will be treated to a West Bank version of Little Nicky. Those craving political insights within a smartly styled satire will find their jaw permanently unhinged at how chock full of cheese the comic commentary is. Sandler deserves credit for taking such a risk, especially when you consider that his box office fortunes have been lagging as of late. And bringing Apatow along was a smart move, even if this kind of humor falls outside his far more successful interpersonal irony ideal. Just like all proposed laughfests, funny is fiercely personal. You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is destined to push such a genre maxim to the very limits of its legitimacy.