Back in his Monty Python days, Michael Palin triumphed as a violence-prone barber who hates cutting hair and dreams of becoming a lumberjack — a lumberjack who dresses in women’s clothing. The constantly surprising sketch brimmed with anarchic references to Psycho, mother-and-son psychology, cross-dressing, 1930s movie musicals featuring manly Nelson Eddy as a crooning Royal Canadian Mountie, British on-the-surface propriety and conservatism, British beneath-the-surface kinkiness, and the increasing presence of sexual content on television in the swinging 1960s — all in a fluid seven minutes.
I mention this because in You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, Adam Sandler plays an elite Israeli commando who’s sick of combat and dreams of becoming a New York hairstylist — a hairstylist who dresses in polyester disco shirts and tight pants that emphasize his papaya-size package. And although there is an onslaught of sexual content and a parade of guest stars in cameos, the essential conservatism of the project guarantees that there are absolutely no surprises in a padded 112 minutes. (Okay, one surprise: Mariah Carey has a funny line promoting her own conservative musical product.)
There is, instead, about enough novelty to fill a seven-minute sketch, most of it relating to the sweetness with which Sandler initially presents himself as a curly-haired, hyper-macho Israeli super-Jew. This proudly Semitic James Bond is good to his parents (Shelley Berman plays Zohan’s papa like a pussycat compared with the kibitzing the old pro gave Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm), good to the tawny, bikinied Tel Aviv girls who flirt with him, good to his Israeli comrades, and even good to the little Arab kids whose villages he’s sometimes forced to disrupt on the hunt for terrorists. Everything he loves about his country is summed up in his love of hummus; he even brushes his teeth with the stuff. There are at least as many hummus visual jokes in this movie as there were ancient tribes in Israel.
As a Hebraic he-man, Sandler is a menschy charmer, all the more so for being so casually, confidently post-political about the role; it’s a sexy, adult look for the guy, who also musters an excellent accent and does a nice bit catching bullets in his teeth. But once Zohan fakes his death and escapes to America rather than track down the Palestinian terrorist known as the Phantom (John Turturro, a reliable Every-ethnic), the comedy gets old just as the action shifts to the new world. (The movie is co-written by Sandler, SNL’s Robert Smigel, and the ubiquitous Judd Apatow, and directed by Happy Gilmore’s Dennis Dugan.) Stowed away in an airplane cargo hold with two doggies in transit, Zohan takes the combined names of his canine fellow travelers and emerges at JFK restyled as would-be hairdresser Scrappy Coco. His tonsorial references have never progressed beyond those in a 1987 hair-fashion book he clutches like a precious bible. But that’s not all that hasn’t progressed: Scrappy is a typically, tediously innocent Sandler man-child when it comes to sex. He’s got the bulge but not the brains.
I know, I know, we’re not supposed to care about such persnickety niceties in such a cavalcade. But holy Koran and Torah both, do we need to swallow still more nervous jokes about being mistaken for a homosexual after the ”enlightened” groaners of I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry? Landed in melting-pot New York and hooked up with a job at a salon owned by a comely Palestinian cutie destined to become his love interest (Entourage’s Emmanuelle Chriqui), Zohan/ Scrappy reveals his talent for satisfying the sexual desires of his older women clients. And most of the heterosexual laughs are had at the sight of their aging lust (more rhino than cougar) for his equipment (more toe-curling than hair-curling).
Then Rob Schneider arrives — he’s the comedy tax in any Adam Sandler production — as an aggrieved Palestinian taxi driver who IDs Zohan and rallies his fellow Arabs to rumble. That’s when the movie falls into a muck of lessons about shalom as bland as any underseasoned bowl of chickpea dip. Gone is any real Arab-Israeli pertinence. Instead, these New York-based Middle Easterners join forces against a last-act bogeyman, an urban developer (Michael Buffer) who’s cartoonishly villainous in his plans for neighborhood domination. Forget Monty Python, You Don’t Mess With the Zohan is a circus that never really flies. C+
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