A Groin Slapper

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You Don’t Mess With the Zohan
Directed by Dennis Dugan

Jokes aren’t merely delivered in You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, they’re tossed at the audience in careless, childish, exuberant abundance—virtually thrown away. That means nothing sticks beyond the notion of Adam Sandler as Zohan, a super-efficient commando in Israel’s Mossad. Not even Zohan’s pacifism (“There are other things I can do besides war”) makes much impression; it’s a momentary shtick that sets up gags rather than character motivation.

Zohan is something of a let down for Sandler who recently has made bold, successful choices in the movies Spanglish, The Click, Reign Over Me, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, where comedy revealed a recognizable deep longing and sadness—yet never turned mawkish. The respective subjects of those movies—class, desire, suffering, sexual identity—still figure in Zohan. But this time, the story (co-written by Sandler, Robert Smigel and the dreaded Judd Apatow) never focuses; it goes wild on the transparent possibilities of creating a Jewish superhero. In fact, an echt ethnic hero whose identity springs from a sense of Israeli national pride that probably hasn’t been seen on screen since Kirk Douglas played Mickey Marcus (the American who became Israel’s first general) in Melville Shavelson’s 1966 film Cast a Giant Shadow.

The first shadow in Zohan is cast by the exaggerated crotch bulge of Sandler’s Speedo, first seen as he struts along Tel Aviv’s beach promenade. Satirizing phallic prowess doesn’t disguise the wish to assert it. Sandler, whose first expression of ethnic pride came in the singular animated Hanukah movie, Eight Crazy Nights, counters the usual timid Jewish-comic persona. Zohan, known as a “counter-terrorist” able to unarm and foot-slap his Palestinian adversaries, can also perform amazingly athletic feats—including grilling and plating fish with his groin. When Zohan gets to America and practices hairstyling, his sexual stamina enables him to satisfy long queues of customers with extra erotic service. Zohan’s not merely a superhero, he’s the Anti-Nebbish.

Sandler’s been able to circumvent the Woody Allen ethnic stereotype by developing impressive characterizations, extending typical Saturday Night Live comic bravado to frequently express a soulful being. (Critics ignored Sandler’s intuitive Bob Dylan-channeling in Reign Over Me only to fall for Cate Blanchett’s ludicrous drag-king impersonation.) It’s funny and inspired that Sandler introduces Zohan with the tanned, bushy-haired sexiness of biblical-movie heroes. And this is spoofed by mocking ethnic excess (Zohan and his father submit everything to hummus dip), which skirts ethnic narcissism. The Z in Zohan not only challenges the cultural significance of Woody Allen’s Zelig but also plainly counteracts the offense of Sasha Baron Cohen’s Borat. (Sandler has deeper acting gifts; he portrays Zohan’s frustration with the kind of imaginative intensity Cohen only had in his Talledega Nights role.)

As an actor-artist, Sandler looks to resolve the issues of self-esteem and masculinity that often lead to comic self-deprecation or the insanity of a self-loathing project like Henry Bean’s The Believer. The significance of identity as a common human issue persists despite the unfair drubbing Sandler took for the brave I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (that’s why Zohan continues the struggle when even his parents misunderstand his ambition: “You’re a fagela?”)

While recognizing Palestine-Israeli conflict (John Turturro plays Zohan’s Palestinian nemesis/counterpart, The Phantom, who taunts, “You think you can oppress my people, land-grabber!”), there’s an undeniable political undercurrent to Sandler’s ethnic heroicizing in Zohan. The film is not unbiased yet stays mostly pacifistic: Zohan deflects bombs then hands out government restoration business cards; he catches rocks thrown by Palestinian kids and carves them into toys. Resolution—of a kind—occurs when Zohan arrives in the United States, where Old World antagonisms get tossed into the free-market melting pot. But this is where the movie’s sense of ethnic identity fizzles and becomes namby-pamby. The urban life of daily cutthroat capitalism gets reduced to a WASP real estate developer and the noisy bickering of Middle-Eastern hustlers—from cab drivers and newsstand operators to gray-market electronics merchants. This global silliness features some good bits (Lainie Kazan as a lusty mom) and lame bits (Mel Gibson-mockery that sinks beneath Sandler’s message and trivializes it).

Yet, Zohan’s effort at brotherhood is still overshadowed by several, more credible examinations of ethnic rivalry: 1) Sandler can’t erase the profound moral crisis of the Mossad drama in Spielberg’s Munich, even though the music score here poignantly evokes that film’s anguish in a montage of failed immigrant dreams; 2) Eytan Fox’s The Bubble gave a richer sense of Israeli-Palestine ethnic complexity; and 3) many of Zohan’s ideas were initiated by Jonathan Kesselman’s more coherent 2003 satire, The Hebrew Hammer.

After those movies, even the best parts of Zohan are not insightful or funny enough. The film’s good humor and goodwill almost converge during a hacky-sack tournament—with its globally unifying disco half-time. But this is messed up too. Instead of achieving disco epiphany, the game starts with the national anthem sung by the buoyantly sexy bi-racial pop singer Mariah Carey. Zohan had signaled his secret desires in Israel by wearing various Mariah Carey T-shirts, but her mis-scheduled cameo simply reveals the film’s poorly organized ideas. In Zohan, Sandler, his co-writers and director Dennis Dugan keep tossing away jokes and throwing away significance.

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