Zohan train wreck sketched lite

You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (US, 2008)
Directed By: Dennis Dugan
Written By: Judd Apatow, Adam Sandler, Robert Smigel
Starring: Adam Sandler, John Turturro, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Dave Matthews, Mariah Carey
Running Time: 113 min.
Rated PG-13 Crude and sexual content throughout, language and nudity
2.5 out of 5 stars

Truly great comedies don’t play like stories that have jokes stuck to them. The really memorable ones play like single jokes that are two hours long—letting their plots develop naturally, but building towards a comedic climax. This was true of Arsenic and Old Lace, and It Happened One Night, and Annie Hall, and Young Frankenstein, and yes, even What about Bob? If Adam Sandler’s films have proven anything, it’s that he doesn’t understand this. Ignoring his brief forays into “art house” pictures (Punch Drunk Love et. al.), he’s essentially made the same movie ten times since becoming a big star. One imagines it gets pitched to producers something like this: “An outcast overcomes rejection and failure, saves the day, and gets the girl. And there are a lot of penis jokes.” (Producer: “Sold! Can we give you ten million dollars right now? Please?”)
I’ve had a complicated relationship with Sandler since he started this lucrative business. There’s part of me that really, really wants to hate these movies. They’re badly paced. They’re ineptly directed. They exist mainly to fill the pockets and ego of Mr. Sandler, neither of which they would actually do, if there was any justice in the world.  
And yet, they always win me over by the end.

You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is, of course, the latest example of this. I wanted to walk out several times, and probably would have if I hadn’t committed to reviewing the thing. I rolled my eyes throughout the screening, even as the thirteen-year-olds around me giggled when the same penis joke was repeated for the tenth time. And yet, when the thing was over, I was feeling pretty good. I had had a good time, and a little bit of my faith in humanity was restored. I can’t explain it. It’s as though Sandler knows his films are train wrecks, so he gives audiences inspiring endings to keep them coming back, or something. Actually, they basically play out like comic melodramas, with the bad guys getting pounded into the dust and the good guys coming out on top, much improved by the experience. And really, who isn’t a sucker for that stuff?

You Don’t Mess with the Zohan starts with a premise that at least feels original, even if it’s not: Sandler plays the title character, who’s been christened with a definite article because he’s a famously unstoppable killing machine in the Israeli army’s counterterrorist unit. He yearns for civilian life, however—specifically, he wants to be a hairstylist. Faking his own death, he escapes to a Middle Eastern neighborhood in New York City, where he attempts to learn this new trade. He has to claw his way up from the bottom, though—starting as a broom boy. Oh, and some Arab terrorists spot him and want to kill him. Oh, and some businessmen want to buy the neighborhood and turn it into a mall, so they’re trying to incite racial violence between the Arabs and the Jews. Oh, and Zohan has to convince his Palestinian boss Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui) to go out with him. And there’s probably some other stuff happening as well.

The problem here is that Sandler and co-writer Judd Apatow (yeah, that guy just won’t go away) have enough plot for a TV miniseries, but only enough funny jokes for an SNL sketch. There’s no doubt in my mind that Sandler has a sign hanging above his desk that reads, “WHEN IN DOUBT, PENIS”; for this film, he’s at least supplemented it with one that says “WHEN IN DOUBT, HUMMUS.” The jokes that aren’t about the size of Zohan’s, erm, manhood (actually, for those of you who care, he claims the bulge in his pants is actually “my boosh”) are about his overuse of the Middle Eastern chickpea delicacy (which is variously compared to semen and diarrhea throughout the film). The overly-complex (and under-explained) plot tends to sag under the weight of the jokes that fall flat (i.e., most of them), and the result is an excruciating second act. There are, however, almost enough funny parts to convince me to recommend this one. {mosimage}A sampling:
1.   An extended Rocky sequence that involves John Turturro beating up a live cow.
2.   The Zohan, calmly discussing the complex issues of who owns the Holy Land with Palestinian terrorists he is simultaneously beating the snot out of.
3.   Evidently, Hezbollah has a “Terrorist Supply Hotline.” Do I need to say anything else?
4.   Some of the best surrealistic slapstick I’ve seen in a long time. Even for an Adam Sandler flick.
5.   Mariah Carey, being funny. On purpose. (“I love you too, horny little man! Buy my albums!”) I’d say this could finally be her big comeback…if her latest album didn’t suck so much.
6.   Dave Matthews. Just…Dave Matthews.

That being said, this one is still punishment to sit through. Really, the best thing I can say about it is that it seems to have its heart in the right place, with its call for peace in the Middle East. Given the reactions of the teenagers I watched it with, though, I’m guessing that most of its target audience couldn’t even find Israel on a map, much less understand the historical, sociological, and religious context for its never-ending conflict. I’m imagining two possible scenarios here: in one, a teen watches this film, reads up on the Holy Land, becomes passionate about it, grows up to be a great peacemaker, and wins a Nobel Prize; in the other, a teen watches the film, then says to his buddy, “Huh huh, it was so funny when Zohan banged that MILF,”—and then goes home to play Halo 3 for six hours.

I’ll let you decide which is more likely.