You Don’t Mess with the Zohan

Producing hit after hit on an annual basis for five or six years now, Adam Sandler and his Happy Madison Productions have a consistency bordering on laziness. For the better part of a decade, Sandler has been most interesting doing variations on his persona (maladjusted but fundamentally decent man-child) for other people’s movies. But You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, a $100 million grosser that nonetheless made less than, say, Click or The Longest Yard, is a Happy Madison production that snaps him out of that complacency.

Though it’s not as lean as his earliest, funniest comedies, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, now on DVD, maintains some of that looseness as it follows its title character, a master Israeli terrorist (“like Rembrandt with a grenade!” enthuses his father) who longs to escape the violence around him and become a hairdresser. During an epic confrontation with his Palestinian arch-rival the Phantom (John Turturro, who enters the movie crouching on the ceiling and manages to go even further over-the-top from there), Zohan fakes his death and heads to New York for a job at a salon.

If any of this sounds remotely straightforward (and it shouldn’t), please keep in mind that the movie also features plenty of New York racial tension, old-lady sex, animal abuse, and hackey-sack, and runs nearly two hours. The rambling screenplay is credited to Sandler, Robert Smigel (TV Funhouse), and current comedy guru Judd Apatow, and they send the movie ricocheting from lazy Sandlerisms to knowingly broad, subtly satiric material you’d expect from Smigel. A fratty commentary track with Sandler and Smigel (plus hangers-on/co-stars Rob Schneider and Nick Swardson) is most instructive when they explain who came up with which sight gags, phrasings, and ridiculous subplots.

Despite the running time and Apatow’s peripheral involvement, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan doesn’t exactly overflow with inspired riffs. Happy Madison remains overly fond of dopey running gags (Swardson plays a character whose only function is to be made uncomfortable by his mother’s relationship with Zohan) and/or lifeless cameos — the likes of Kevin Nealon, John McEnroe, and Dave Matthews make for a mangier repertory company than the Freaks and Geeks crew that Apatow typically employs. The “unrated” DVD cut runs a barely perceptible five extra minutes and the deleted scenes explain why: they’re 15-minutes of trims, not major cuts. The boys appear to have thrown a lot of material up on screen.

But for the first time in years, a Sandler comedy is held together by more than a lazily executed high concept — indeed, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan‘s enthusiastic weirdness practically makes it a parody of high concepts. Some of the material is obvious and sometimes the pace slackens, but the movie’s high spirits prevail. The barrage of goofy ethnic jokes, slapstick, and absurdism, even at its most vulgar, feels inclusive and good-hearted.

Sandler has often toyed with the image of a good Jewish boy gone mischievous, and the Zohan character is a hilariously illogical extension of this idea: he’s an even-tempered nice guy who happens to also be an unstoppable warrior. Violence often figures into his persona, and here the writers find a new angle. On the commentary, Smigel mentions that the invincibility of Zohan and the Phantom is meant as a gibe at violence glorification, and in a featurette, the film’s stunt coordinator talks about using movie trickery to make those characters “ten percent beyond” the abilities of actual humans (though I’d conservatively place the ability to catch bullets in one’s bare hands and/or nostrils closer to 60 percent).

Beyond spoofery, the Zohan allows Sandler to shed his recent faux-populist tics — the low-key non-acting, the droppin’ of his g’s, the propensity for saying “ain’t”, bundled with his semi-latent conservatism — in favor of a more convincing togetherness. It may be naïve to think that Israelis and Palestinians could put aside their differences to fight off gentrification (and depressing that the merry solution still involves a giant new mall going up somewhere in Manhattan), but when Zohan and the Phantom pool their superhuman resources, it’s still oddly sweet, even moreso than Zohan’s affection for his Palestinian love interest (Emmanuelle Chriqui).

Sandler and a lot of his filmmaking buddies went to NYU — it’s one reason all of the regular Joe “ain’t” stuff has rung false in the past — and You Don’t Mess with the Zohan has a charming optimism about the city and its cross-cultural inhabitants. Smigel is probably too canny a satirist to fall for these resolutions on his own; this is Smigel working in his buddy’s All-American sitcom world, not the other way around. But even the movie’s sometime simple-mindedness is a cheerful choice, rather than a default setting. For a couple of hours, Sandler reconciles his nice Jewish boy with his marauding vulgarian, and for the first time in years, his comedy is personal again.

RATING 6 / 10