You Don’t Mess With the Zohan

Ealasaid/ June 8, 2008/ Movie Reviews and Features

Directed by: Dennis Dugan
Starring: Adam Sandler, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Rob Schneider, John Turturro
Rated: PG-13 for crude and sexual content throughout, language and nudity.
Parental Notes: There’s little in the way of graphic nudity or violence here, the entire movie is very cartoonish. It is, however, very, very vulgar.

“You Don’t Mess With The Zohan” is the latest film from Dennis Dugan, who directed last year’s “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry,” and the two films have some of the same issues. Both are brainless, vulgar comedies about serious issues — gay marriage for “Chuck and Larry” and the Israel/Palestine conflict for “Zohan.” Both contain oodles of stereotypes and are a mixed bag in terms of comedy.
The plot starts off straightforward: Zohan (Adam Sandler) is the top man in the Israeli army, able to catch bullets in his bare hands and defeat Palestinian terrorists with ease — and he’s a big hit with the ladies as well. But underneath it all, he has a dream: to go to America and become a hair stylist. So he fakes his death, making it look like his Palestinian equivalent, Phantom (John Turturro) has managed to kill him, and smuggles himself to the States — but he can’t get away from his old life. A Palestinian cab driver (Rob Schneider) spots him and becomes determined to be the one to bring him down.
Zohan manages to get hired at a rundown salon in a bad part of town, but turns the place around when the old women who come there start telling their friends about the hot new guy who styles their hair, flatters them, and then schtupps them in the back room. Sandler has absolutely zero shame, which is vital for his role. Half the jokes in the film seem to involve Sandler thrusting his well-padded crotch at various people. He’s completely invested, which makes the humor work if you’re willing to ignore all taste and decorum. If you’re not, however, it won’t help a bit. Sure, there are some jokes that really work (one of Zohan’s coworkers becoming inured to the screaming and wall-shaking from Zohan’s post-styling sessions with his clients is quite funny), but there are quite a few that don’t.
Surprisingly late in the film, a new element is introduced: an evil developer who wants to raze the neighborhood Zohan has settled in. He tries raising people’s rents so they have to leave, but that doesn’t work, so then he tries hiring a gang of thugs to incite a war between the Palestinian and Israeli sides of the street. Matters are complicated when Phantom finds out Zohan is still alive and shows up to take him down permanently.
“Zohan” has an ultimately positive message, that we’re all basically the same underneath. Unfortunately, it also seems to be preaching the idea that here in the US, warring cultures can leave all their conflicts behind. It doesn’t have anything to say about the folks who are still in their homelands, though. Zohan and his friends don’t take this new revelation back to Israel to help their countries end the conflict, but settle into peaceful lives here. Maybe the message Sandler and company are promoting is that Israelis and Palestinians should all come to the States?
But I’m falling into the trap of trying to take a movie full of penis jokes and sexually-rapacious-for-the-sake-of-comedy old women and have it actually carry a real message. The filmmakers seem to want to have their cake and eat it too, to make a brainless comedy about something important. If you can set aside any taste and any strong feelings about the years of death and destruction the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, you may be able to enjoy “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” to the fullest. But if, like me, you can’t, you may find yourself laughing at some of the jokes, and embarrassed by the rest.

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