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You Don’t Mess with the Zohan

Strictly for Adam Sandler Fans

The ubiquitous Adam Sandler (almost twenty lead roles in just over ten years) is back with You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, a broad comedy about a disco-loving, Israeli Mossad agent who really just wants to be a hairdresser (and he’s straight). Tackling thorny representation issues with all the subtlety of well…an Adam Sandler comedy, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan contains enough vulgar, crude jokes to keep Sandler’s fanbase engaged for its overlong 110-minute running time. And if you’re not a Sandler fan, you’ll end up thinking up ways to get your money back.

Whisked away from a much-needed vacation, Zohan (Sandler), Israel’s best field agent gets pulled back by the Mossad for one more mission, the recapture of Zohan’s longtime enemy, the Phantom (John Turturro). Understandably miffed at the seemingly endless rounds of violence between Jews and Arabs, Zohan reveals his hairdressing aspirations to his elderly parents. They promptly accuse him of being, in their words, a “fagula". Spurned by his uncomprehending parents, Zohan goes on the mission to capture the Phantom, but fakes his own death so he can make good his escape to the United States.

After giving himself a haircut taken directly from a Paul Mitchell book (circa 1985), Zohan tries to get a stylist gig with Mitchell himself. Twenty years out of date in hairdressing trends and fashions, Zohan encounters a seemingly endless series of rejection. A chance encounter with a bicyclist, Michael (Nick Swardson), and an enraged driver gains Zohan a new friend, a place to stay, and a uniquely odd relationship with Michael’s Gail (Lainie Kazan). After almost giving up, Zohan gigs a gig sweeping floors at a fashion salon owned and operated by Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui), a Palestinian woman. Before long, Zohan’s cutting and styling the hair of Dalia’s elderly clientele and servicing them afterwards.

Sandler co-wrote You Don’t Mess with the Zohan with Judd Apatow (Superbad, Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin) and longtime SNL scribe Robert Smigel. Although he has more than 400 episodes to his credit, Smigel is best known for creating Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog (a staple on Late Night with Conan O’Brien), TV Funhouse’s "The Ambiguously Gay Duo", and the infamous William Shatner “Get a Life” skit. With Apatow and Smigel onboard and a high-concept premise in hand, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan had potential.

Unfortunately, all that talent and experience didn’t get this film very far. Zohan’s fish-out-of-water routine gets old fast, as does the running gag of Zohan providing sexual services to women collecting their retirement pensions. It’s subversive, sure, but really who wants to repeatedly imagine Adam Sandler having sex with women old enough to be his grandmother? The ethnic-based humor isn’t as offensive as it could have been, but it also tends to fall flat for its obviousness. It’s early on, when Zohan is in superhero-without-a-cape mode that You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is at its most inventive (and its funniest). Once Zohan embarks on his hairstyling career, we’re “treated” (well okay, the opposite of “treated”) to Zohan making lewd advances or dry humping old women.

Sandler tapped longtime collaborator Dennis Dugan (I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, Big Daddy, Happy Gilmore) to direct You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. Dugan offers little in the way of visual invention or style. To be fair, though, the real filmmaker in Hollywood comedies isn’t the director or even the writer, but the comic actor in front of the camera and for better or for worse (mostly worse), You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is Adam Sandler’s film. Not even the long string of cameos by fellow SNL alums (e.g. Kevin Nealon, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider) or celebrities (e.g. Kevin James, John McEnroe, Mariah Carey) can do much to generate sufficient good will to salvage You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars