The new Adam Sandler picture, You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, isn’t all that different from any number of old Adam Sandler pictures. That’s to say that it’s not very good, and—unless you’re in Sandler’s teen fanboy demographic—you probably won’t find it terribly funny. It’s directed by Dennis Dugan, who’s helmed several Sandler films, but does that really even matter? Face facts, with the exception of Punch-Drunk Love (2002), it doesn’t matter who’s behind the camera, because Sandler—or Sandler and the fellows who make up the Sandlerizing machine—is the auteur.
What this means here is that the viewer is, once again, assaulted by raunchy jokes, the crudest of crude humor, a plethora of penis gags and a few doses of homosexual panic. Oh yes, and there are several assurances that Sandler is not gay (gay men everywhere can doubtless breathe a sigh of relief). A complete lack of pacing and comic timing, along with generally pointless roles for Sandler hangers-on, like Rob Schneider and Nick Swardson, complete the picture. The only addition Zohan brings to the comedy catalog is a bewildering array of gags involving hummus. These must have had Sandler and company rolling on the floor when the film was in development, but, apart from one that mimics Sandler having an orgasm, the audience at the showing I attended missed the inherent hilarity of hummus.
The film’s story finds Sandler as “The Zohan,” a Mossad superagent who wants nothing out of life but to move to New York City and become a hairdresser. (This, of course, sets up the “but not gay hairdresser” remarks, though admittedly in a more mature-than-usual fashion that’s pretty clearly modeled on the “gay boy” name-calling Sandler’s character receives in Punch-Drunk Love.) Since no one else but Zohan is keen on his idea of becoming a hairstylist, our hero fakes his death at the hands of Palestinian terrorist “The Phantom” (John Turturro) and hides his way to the Big Apple. He re-emerges (with a bad haircut) as Scrappy Coco (a name he appropriates from the dogs he stows away with), determined to make the world “silky smooth.” Of course, the world has not been waiting for him, so his dream is a lot harder to realize than he imagines. And irony of ironies (as far as a Sandler movie goes), he finds himself working in the beauty parlor of pretty Palestinian Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui, In the Mix). Hilarity, romance and possible peace in the Middle East ensue—theoretically.
While the results—hummus gags, terrorist bureaucracies, impossible physical comedy (do you really want to see Sandler catch a fish in his buttocks?) etc.—are pretty lame and lazily executed, there’s something not without interest going on here. When his last picture, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007), came out, I was prepared to give Sandler the benefit of the doubt that his barrage of dumb gay jokes were in part to pave the way for a sincere plea for gay acceptance—and not just because of the token gay cameo by Richard Chamberlain. It seemed to me then—and seems to me even more now (and again, not just because of a token gay cameo by George Takei in this film)—that Sandler was actually doing something pretty subversive to his fan base.
The gay acceptance message is here, too, but more “normalized.” Sure, everybody assumes that since Zohan wants to be a hairdresser, he must be gay (a silly stereotype in itself), but his desire to be a “hair homo” is viewed as no big deal. Moreover, the comeuppance of a redneck racist homophobe in the film is to deliver (propel really) the man into the midst of his own worst fears: a gay party. It’s a pretty good gag, but one wonders if Sandler’s core viewership pauses to realize what’s being addressed here.
Similarly, there’s the whole issue—addressed comedically, but not in a demeaning manner—of Zohan’s propensity to have sex with older women (ranging from 67-year-old Lainie Kazan to 81-year-old Charlotte Rae) by way of thanking them for any display of kindness (or simply as a follow-up to a haircut). I don’t know if this is quite Harold and Maude for the new generation (there’s no depth provided here), but I do know this is a concept apt to transgress on a teenager’s view of sex and what does or doesn’t make a woman desirable. It may do the same, for that matter, to Sandler’s own concepts, especially if you contrast Zohan with the “babe magnet” character he played in Chuck and Larry.
The film’s sexual politics are probably more interesting than its political politics, though there’s something admirable about Sandler daring to address the Israel-Palestine topic at all, or the perception that anyone from the Middle East (or anyone who might be construed as being from the Middle East) must be a terrorist. The problem with this—apart from the simplistic approach to it all—and the problem with the sexual politics lies in the fact that it’s all housed in a movie that’s just not good. And that’s too bad, because it’s all pretty interesting material. Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content throughout, language and nudity.