How Low Will Adam Sandler Go?

After he fakes his own death, Israeli commando Zohan (Sandler) becomes a popular New York hairstylist in "You Don't Mess With the Zohan."
After he fakes his own death, Israeli commando Zohan (Sandler) becomes a popular New York hairstylist in "You Don't Mess With the Zohan." (By Tracy Bennett -- Sony Pictures)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 6, 2008

Give this much to Adam Sandler: He's an equal-opportunity bigot.

In "You Don't Mess With the Zohan," he manages to stereotype pretty much everyone between the Middle East and Midwest, and I suspect he'll take care of the other half of the world in his next film.

In the world according to Adam, Arabs are childish, violent, stupid; Israelis are aggressive, mendacious, oversexed; white Americans are gun-crazed, violent rednecks or smarmy aristocratic businessmen/gangsters; post-menopausal women are riven with lust. And all this hatethought is expressed in support of a political argument that's no more sophisticated than "Can't we just all get along?"

What is it with this guy? He's so ugly. He can't stop himself from trying to find humor in the meanest kind of hostility -- it's almost a form of bullying. I was particularly offended by his willingness to draw laughs from the image of women in their 70s dolled up in tarts' costumes in order to score a hit from the Zohan. What is that about?

It's not like he's bravely confronting political correctness by reveling in expressing the nastiest stereotypes, it's more like he hasn't heard of political correctness and is unfamiliar with the concept of stereotypes in the first place. His mind is stuck at the 8-year-old level.

In "You Don't Mess With the Zohan," he plays the Zohan, a fabled Israeli special-operations hero so gifted at physical mayhem he doesn't even take a weapon into combat. This hero decides he's had enough of the fighting and decides to immigrate to America and become a hairdresser at the famous Paul Mitchell boutique. Thus he fakes his own death and vanishes. It occurs to no one that the name for such an act is desertion and it's generally not thought of as a funny thing.

The movie begins with his last mission, to nab a famous Palestinian bad boy and fast-falafel entrepreneur (it's that kind of movie) named the Phantom, who turns out to be the great actor John Turturro behind shades and a kaffiyeh. Am I alone in not begrudging Turturro an easy payday yet coming away depressed at the waste of such a talent? Shouldn't he be off doing Chekhov somewhere?

To be fair, there's some humor in the way Sandler and his pet director, Dennis Dugan, envision the Zohan as a gymnast rather than a commando, and in how they set up the movie's best sequence: his graceful passage through midair, windows and rocket-propelled grenades to bloodlessly nab the Phantom. And the charm continues for a bit: The Zohan gets to America, tries to get a job at the Mitchell boutique, and instead ends up in a neighborhood in Brooklyn that is a mini-Middle East of its own, with Palestinians on one side of the street and Jews on the other. He, of course, can find work only in a shop owned by a Palestinian woman (Emmanuelle Chriqui, the best thing by far in the picture).

The movie is gross but not unfunny as it covers the Zohan's rise through hair culture, aided by his steamy heterosexuality, his lack of inhibition and his stereotypical career aggressiveness, until the old ladies are lined up all the way to the Bronx for a few minutes of bliss in the Zohan chair. Meanwhile, Dalia (Chriqui) is falling in love with him, and he's made friends with some of the Israeli merchants and is bringing them to the home where he's staying.

Alas, at about the halfway point, someone notices that there's, er, no story being told. Too late and too busily and too annoyingly, the script clacks into low gear with a dreary subplot about vengeful if infantile Palestinian refugees (led by Rob Schneider as a taxi driver who mourns the day back in the old country when the Zohan stole his goat), a story line that ultimately involves bringing the Phantom over to America.

Of course the true villains in all this turn out to be a WASPy real-estate developer and his hired crew of rural Americans who like guns too much and hate homosexuals too much and don't read the New York Times. Really, isn't it time all these sloppy caricatures were laid to rest?

When he's not modeling his biceps (Sandler clearly bulked up for this role and enjoys acting the super-tough stud), he's showing off his showbiz connections with a batch of cameos from such luminaries as John McEnroe, George Takei and Bruce Vilanch.

But in the end, the movie feels as if it exists only to display the Sandler's biceps.

You Don't Mess With the Zohan (106 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual content and penis jokes.

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