It would be one thing if You Don't Mess With the Zohan was simply bad; after the recent string of Adam Sandler comedies like I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Click and The Longest Yard, You Don't Mess With the Zohan continues the Sandler career path where low comedy is intended to result in high profits. Sandler's films now seem to function mostly as a kind of philosophical experiment: How lazy, sloppy and stupid can a film be and still make money? And let's not mince words here, or hem and haw and add caveats about a few laughs or good intentions: You Don't Mess With the Zohan is astonishingly, impressively, depressingly bad.
And no, this is not some sneering, soft-handed ivory-tower resident looking down on Sandler's work from a lofty height; this is someone who loves a good smart dumb comedy telling you that if you see You Don't Mess With the Zohan, you'll witness a moment where Zohan -- the Israeli commando-turned-hairdresser played by Sandler -- wishes a sad farewell to someone with his junk. We get a close-up of it -- bulging, frame-filling -- and it waggles a little wave to us, sadly, as Zohan wishes goodbye to a girl he might have loved, eyes sad and crotch engorged. And I think of myself as hard to startle, or fairly inured to the depths to which Hollywood will go to get what they think might be a laugh, but I actually shook my head vigorously at that moment in the theater on the off chance that I might simply be dreaming this in some unsettled nightmare where a major motion picture studio not only thought a sentimental wang-wave was funny but paid for the construction of the cock-animatronic in question, so that we could witness Zohan demonstrate the breaking of his heart by the shifting of his bulge. And if you think I'm obsessing over Sandler's penis, let me assure you that its nothing compared to Sandler's own obsession; I'm just relaying a portion of the smutty, unfunny sex-comedy in Zohan, where the whole comedic enterprise seems to revolve around the axis of Sandler's stuffed man-bits.
I haven't fully explained the plot, but there's not much to explain; credited to Sandler, Robert Smigel and Judd Apatow, You Don't Mess With the Zohan's script can be summed up in a series of brief sentences: Israeli counter-terrorism commando tires of fighting, fakes his death, moves to New York to pursue his dream of being a hairdresser, is pursued by his Palestinian nemesis, finds the melting pot of America more peaceful than the constant battles of the Middle East, ultimately joining forces with his mortal enemy The Phantom (John Turturro) to stop a gentrifying developer who's trying to drive a series of Israeli and Arab-owned business out of a New York block in the name of building a mall.
I can't say if this pitch would have been funny with better execution, but I can say definitively that even this reed-thin spine is twisted and bent by supporting the crushing weight of Sandler's sneering narcissism and infantile sexuality. Zohan can only get a job cutting hair at a Palestinian-owned salon, under the direction of the lovely Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui), but he soon becomes popular with the shop's older female patrons --- not solely because he flatters the customers and gives good style, but because he also takes them into the storage closet after each cut and services them sexually. So we're expected to laugh, not just at the goofiness of Zohan's dream and his '80s styles (Zohan's only hairstyling reference book is a Paul Mitchell Salon photobook from two decades ago) but also at the thought of virile, young Adam Sandler giving older woman a good solid rogering. When he shares his dream of hairdressing with his family, Zohan's asked if he's a "faygeleh" -- gay -- which he's quick to assert he isn't; perhaps Sandler, fearing collateral gayness, is overcompensating in the worst possible way. Or perhaps Zohan's constant mentions of "making sticky" is an attempt at crafting a Borat-style character, the blithe idiot adrift in the modern world -- but if we're supposed to believe in Zohan as a bold, brilliant killing machine, making him dull and dim about sex and hairstyles actually works counter to the thrust of the film, or at least the parts of the film that don't revolve around thrusting.
Amazingly, Zohan tries to position itself as a film with a message beneath the laughs, depicting how, in America, Israelis and Palestinians kinda sorta get along. But Zohan trafficks in stereotypes as Zohan uses hummus as everything from a toothpaste to a fire retardant. It has shameless mis-casting, with Rob Schneider expanding his long list of makeup-smeared missteps here as a supporting Palestinian character. It gives us weird woman-hating moments like Zohan's sex-stud idea of extended service or explaining how Zohan's nemesis Phantom has a stable of 20 wives or showing us Israelis and Palestinians bonding over which female politicians or political spouses they'd like to do. It's nearly impossible to see Zohan's can't-we-all-just-get-along message as anything but sad posturing to rationalize bulge, buttock and breast jokes.
The idea behind You Don't Mess With the Zohan -- that a weary warrior would want to paraphrase the proverb and beat his sword not into a ploughshare but instead a curling iron -- could have been funny, yes. But that would take filmmakers who can stick to an idea and explore it with wit and intellect, not a director like Dennis Dugan who has built a career out of saying "That was awesome, Adam ...." no matter how lame or bizarre or over-the-top his moneymaking star's performance and ideas become. It would also take a comedic actor who thought there was more to shaping a character than stuffing your pants, and a supporting cast who were offered more to do than make jokes about their goat or look great in a low-cut top. It would take a script that respected human dignity even as it exposed the foibles in it, not one that made mealy-mouthed wishes for peace between men while degrading and insulting women. It would take someone, somewhere, with enough courage and judgment to tell Sandler the mass appetite for his films does not make them good, merely popular, and that standing on a high pile of hateful, dimwitted wreckage like what Sandler's offered audiences shouldn't be confused with a place at the top. "Don't Mess"? More like "Don't Bother."