Considering how repetitive it is, You Don't Mess With the Zohan is intermittently fresh and amusing in a low-down yet schmaltzy way. It's basically a one-note, one-rhythm ethnic comedy: a series of riffs on Israeli machismo and Middle Eastern tensions scored to Mediterranean disco. At 113 minutes, the movie bloats, and the humor wears thin, but it's still one of Adam Sandler's sturdier vehicles. That's consumer guidance for Sandler fans - not high praise.
He plays the title character, an Israeli commando who fantasizes about being a hairdresser and fulfills his dream when he fakes his own death and flies to New York. He takes the name "Scrappy Coco" from a pair of dogs he befriends in the cargo hold. He describes himself as an Australian-Tibetan and starts learning his trade at the bottom, sweeping floors for free for a beautiful Palestinian salon owner in lower Manhattan.
At the center of the shenanigans is Sandler's view of Israel's street-and-beach culture as, well, a combination of Australia and Tibet - astounding masculine self-confidence and hedonism mixed with exotic flavorings. Zohan's athletic and military prowess provides the chutzpah. The hedonism derives from his belief that sex is a natural vitalizing agent that should be exploited as much as possible. (That is, until true love hits - and demands exclusivity.) And the exoticism is cooked up, semi-uproariously, from John Travolta movies of the 1970s and 1980s.
Zohan in his home country is the counter-terrorist as rock star. Before a clutch of bikini-clad beauties, he lives up to his reputation by flaunting his stuff on the sand, including his dance moves and his wizardry at hacky-sack. In New York, he strolls through ethnic neighborhoods with the cocky self-confidence of Travolta in Saturday Night Fever and the blow-dried look of Travolta in the awful SNF sequel, Stayin' Alive. You see, Zohan gets his hairstyling notions (including the cut he adopts for himself) from a 21-year-old Paul Mitchell stylebook.
Zohan's guttural accent and Israeli form of pidgin English, as well as his combination of hubris and insecurity, releases Sandler's gusto but not his imagination; he's still an unvarying performer. With Dennis Dugan's painfully blunt direction and a patchwork screenplay attributed to Sandler, Judd Apatow and Robert Smigel (the genius behind Saturday Night Live cartoons and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog), a lot of things are funny - once.
The sequence of Zohan's first showdown with the Palestinian super-terrorist known as the Phantom (John Turturro) parodies both Rambo and Steven Spielberg's self-important Munich. (Zohan has the good sense to postpone any swapping of victim stories between the two sides.) Unfortunately, their rematch and eventual team-up falls flat. The first time someone accuses the commando-turned-hairstylist of homosexuality, it's passably humorous; the fifth or sixth time, it flunks the laugh test. (In a movie like this, the taste test goes out the window, or maybe down the toilet.)
Zohan's use of hummus as everything from a food stuff to a dentifrice and a fire-fighting tool clicks because it's goofy, diverse and off-hand. Elsewhere, Sandler and company take nimble running jokes and run them into the ground.
They milk dry Zohan's relationship with Gail (Lainie Kazan), the zaftig mother of his first New York friend, Michael (Nick Swardson); you can only take so much of Swardson's appalled little-boy look before it settles on your face, too. Sandler's padded briefs prove to be a relentless sight gag, and the scenes of him servicing his aging customers in every way make the The Producers look subtle.
Even the satire of Israeli-run American electronics shops with names like "Going Out of Business" - so resonant with anyone who's bought a knockoff gizmo on the promise "it has Sony guts" - gets a bit monotonous.
Emmanuelle Chikri has little to do except look gorgeous and think nice thoughts as Dalia, the hero's Palestinian boss. (She does that effortlessly.) Still, whenever the movie turns rote and (what's worse) soggy, there's usually a pungent bit to come, such as a Hezbollah customer-service hot line and Rob Schneider's awe-struck look at Mariah Carey singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at a Hacky-Sack championship. Schneider plays a Palestinian cabbie who just wants to be a goatherd. The film unites Israelis and Palestinians who realize they like the way they live side by side in New York's melting pot, scraping together a living and following individual as well as tribal dreams.
Zohan sings secular-commercial kumbaya, but at least it has a daffy disco beat. As an hour-long HBO special, it could have been a contender.
Watch a preview of You Don't Mess With the Zohan at
You Don't Mess With the Zohan
(Columbia Pictures) Starring Adam Sandler, John Turturro, Emmanuelle Chriqui. Directed by Dennis Dugan. Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, language and nudity. Time 113 minutes.