Adam Sandler’s new film, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, will inevitably be compared to Sacha Baron Cohen’s howler, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
Like its uproarious predecessor, Sandler’s movie, scheduled to open in Toronto on June 6, is a wild foray into a politically incorrect universe where nothing is sacred and everything is fodder for its dark, twisted humour
In the mockumentary Borat, a zany, downright racist journalist from Central Asia, Cohen, is plopped down in the middle of United States and left to his own devices, with predictably crazy results.
Borrowing a page from Cohen’s playbook, but hewing to a more traditional, scripted comedy, Sandler plays a legendary Israeli commando who is sick and tired of war and fakes his own death in a battle with his Arab nemesis so that he can fulfil a dream and become a hairstylist in New York City.
Like Borat, Zohan is a fish-out-of-water, comic-book character defined by deadpan behaviour and physicality. But unlike Borat, Zohan is something of a bionic man, an indestructible ninja steeped in the martial arts who’s unfazed by onerous challenges.
At heart, Zohan is a pretty decent chap who likes the ladies – irrespective of their age, looks and physical attributes – and who desires nothing more than a quiet, uneventful life.
The film, directed by Dennis Dugan and written by Sandler, Judd Apatow and Robert Smigel, opens on a bright, sparkling summer day as Zohan relaxes on the Tel Aviv beachfront,
Judging by his juvenile but endearing antics, bikini-clad women just love this nice, but eccentric, Jewish boy. Before too long, a military helicopter lands and scoops up Zohan. Duty calls, much to his regret.
At headquarters, Zohan volunteers to take on the feared Phantom (John Turturro), an Arab fighter based in Beirut. Prior to embarking on his top-secret mission, Zohan joins his patriotic parents for a meal and admits that he has grown weary of the endless violence of the Arab-Israeli dispute.
“I’ve done so much for the country,” he says. “When does it end? When can I move on?”
Between mouthfuls of hummus, his mother urges him to remain in the army and “play it safe.” When he reveals that his ambition is to cut and style hair, his surprised, dumbfounded parents assume that he’s gay.
Dugan milks this mordant situation to the maximum and, later, he pokes fun at the non-culinary uses of hummus.
Having fought the Phantom in his hideout in Beirut, Zohan confronts him yet again and pretends to have been defeated in a watery duel.
Finding himself in Manhattan, where he goes by the name of Scrappy Coco, Zohan shops around for jobs and deflates pompous bullies.
Unable to land a position as a hairdresser, Zohan wanders into a shady “going out of business” electronics store. Here, in rollicking fashion, the film mercilessly skewers the bait-and-switch tactics of its Israeli sales staff.
At the suggestion of an Israeli who recognizes him and admires his exploits, Zohan is directed across the street to an Arab-owned hair salon. Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui), the Palestinian proprietor, gives him a chance, and Zohan is off and running.
Zohan’s silky smooth cut-and-bang technique is a hit with the ladies, particularly the geriatric set. These ribald scenes are both amusing and overdrawn and seethe with crass sexuality. Sandler is kinetic, a whirling dervish of energy with his ersatz Hebrew accent.
The film unfolds to the beat of a Hebrew soundtrack, the first I have heard in a mainstream Hollywood movie. It also satirizes a Hezbollah phone line and Muslim bombmakers, and delivers a dig at actor and director Mel Gibson.
More often than not, Sandler’s film elicits belly laughs, but it also dredges up tiresome jokes and offends cat lovers as it runs out of steam.
One skit, in particular, is in poor taste. “Who would write Arab go home,” asks an Arab man as he reads nativist graffiti on a wall. “Ninety per cent of the world,” counters an Israeli boor.
Strangely enough, however, the film promotes universal brotherhood within the context of American democracy.
Zohan, falling hard for Dalia, says, “I will only be stiff for you.” Dalia appreciates his sentiments, but realistically realizes that a romance between an Israeli and a Palestinian is an unlikely possibility. Or is it?
Like Zohan, Dalia has settled in the United States to distance herself from the conflicts and hatreds of the Middle East. In this multicultural spirit, Israelis and Arabs unite, if only momentarily, to confront a group of white supremacists in the employ of a greedy developer who wants to tear down a charming neighbourhood.
You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is notable for its moments of hilarity, and Sandler tries hard to please, but in the final analysis, it’s a pale imitation of Borat.