If Munich is the disease, the Zohan is the cure. Portraying an Israeli James Bond who doesn’t feel guilty about killing Palestinian terrorists but would much rather be styling hair, Adam Sandler turns in his funniest film since The Waterboy.
The title secret agent of You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, called, “Rembrandt with a grenade,” yearns for not only peace but the opposite of Mossad work: dressing hair. When he is apparently killed by his archfoe, the Palestinian radical “the Phantom” (John Turturro), Zohan takes the opportunity to sneak off to New York City and get a job in an (Arab-run) salon. Zohan argues that making hair smooth and silky “is pleasant, it’s peaceful, no one gets hurt.” His mother disapproves: “Play it safe. Stay in the army.”
Upon hitting New York, Zohan has run-ins with an Arab cabbie (Rob Schneider) who would rather be a telephone rep for the Spiegel Catalog (any reference to the Spiegel catalog is automatically funny), discovers the unofficial headquarters for Israeli immigrants (the dodgy Midtown electronics shop, where a guy sells you a suspicious-looking cellphone while promising, “Push this button? Free HBO”) and tries to avoid the Phantom, who is also in New York and now running a Palestinian fast food shop that sells its own action figures, whose TV commercials end with the words, “Limit one per customer. America is Satan.”
Sandler, who donates to Republican politicians, is not normally a man who walks the cutting edge of comedy, but Zohan takes political humor much farther than it typically goes in Hollywood movies, providing strong evidence that satiric filmmakers could vastly improve their work if only they were willing to question liberal assumptions about equal guilt for all nations (except more for America). Future cultural historians will look back on our era and say: Really? Did the aughties really feature no more than a handful of movies that even acknowledged the existence of Islamist terror? An Arab in Zohan says she regrets “all the hate on both sides.” Replies Zohan: “Yes, especially yours.” Nothing makes a joke work like an unexpected slap of truth, and Zohan has many such moments.
The movie misses no opportunity to make fun of extremists like Hezbollah, Hamas and Warren Beatty. Most of it is a riposte to and parody of Beatty’s Shampoo, about a womanizing hairdresser and the 1968 RFK campaign. Zohan styles the hair of elderly Jewish women while talking dirty to them, executing movements that would make a Chippendales dancer blush, then taking them in the backroom to make their hair stand on end. “You look very bangable,” he tells one old lady, before proving he means it. This is one hairdresser who lathers, rinses and gets repeat business.
The script by Sandler, Saturday Night Live writer Robert Smigel and Judd Apatow tosses in a lot of inspired Mel Brooks-style silliness-playing hacky sack with a cat; a workout scene in which a guy training for a fight punches a heavy bag, then a side of raw meat, then a live cow; Mariah Carey saying, “I love you too, horny little man!” In the climactic scene, there is a Lebanese-Israeli hacky sack championship in which goals are followed by disco breaks.
The movie goes on a good 20 minutes too long — in the final hour, it starts to get very nervous about being fair to Arabs and finally portrays them working peacefully together with Jews, which is indeed a marvel of New York. But to do so it takes a giant step back from reality and turns sheepishly to one of Hollywood’s hoariest notions, that America’s real threat is from some sort of redneck white supremacist group — white inferiorists? Hands up, all those who think lumpy hicks in plaid shirts are as dangerous as Islamist freaks. Sandler also seemingly feels obliged to give everyone he knows a cameo, leading to scenes prominently featuring Henry Winkler and Kevin Nealon that could easily have been cut. One cameo the writers apparently didn’t think of: bringing back Julie Christie, the Shampoo vixen, as one of Zohan’s customers.
You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is at its best when it channels either maximum absurdity or minimal political correctness. Comedy is at its best when it shows no mercy. “People don’t like us,” complains an Arab. “People don’t like us either,” replies an Israeli. “Why?” asks the Arab. “Because,” the Israeli replies, “they think we’re you.”
You Don’t Mess with the Zohan
Directed by Dennis Dugan
Starring: Adam Sandler, John Turturro, Emmanuelle Chriqui
3 stars/ 4