To say that Adam Sandler’s new movie, co-written by Hollywood’s reigning comic monarch Judd Apatow, isn’t quite as bad as you might expect is faint praise. But it’s about the most favorable thing one can offer concerning “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” another in the string of exercises in coarse infantilism that represent the studios’ idea of farce nowadays.
Things start off badly with a first reel that introduces Sandler as an Israeli superspy whose physical prowess, exhibited in CGI effects sequences that suggest he should have been outfitted with tights and a cape, is matched only by his complete self-confidence. (A wretched prologue showing him wowing everybody during a seaside vacation doesn’t help, especially with the from-behind nudity.) The only thing that lifts this section of the picture at all is a nifty cameo by veteran Shelley Berman as Zohan’s kvetching father.
Things improve slightly when Zohan fakes his death in a mission against the self-promoting terrorist who calls himself The Phantom (John Turturro) in order to escape to New York and fulfill his dream of becoming a hair stylist. After some misadventures involving a timid bike messenger (Nick Swardson) and his randy mother (Lainie Kazan), he gets a job at a salon run by Palestinian beauty Dalia (Emanuelle Chriqui)—his eventual romantic interest, of course—in a section of town where Jews and Arabs, though hardly best buddies, co-exist peacefully. Zohan hits the jackpot by becoming the little old Jewish ladies’ favorite when he follows up each trim with a session in the back room. But his happiness—and safety—are threatened when he’s recognized by angry Arab cabbie Salim (Rob Schneider), whose goat he once stole and who aims at taking revenge.
As if all that weren’t enough, the street’s evil Donald Trumpish landlord aims to tear down all the stores and build a hideous mall on the site topped by a roller-coaster, and it’s not beneath him to use neo-Nazi thugs dressed as Arabs to fire-bomb Jewish stores to start a riot and rip the neighborhood apart. Leave it to Zohan—and a surprise ally—to see that doesn’t happen.
There’s an underlying “we can all get along” thread to “Zohan” that’s certainly simple-minded but at least indicates that the movie’s heart is in the right place. Unfortunately, it’s swallowed up in a morass of puerile nonsense, aimed directly at the adolescent crowd, that has the stench of desperation about it. The effects scenes demonstrating Zohan’s amazing physical feats are mostly lame (a bit about his twisting opponents into human pretzels may work the first time but pales on repetition). And while the business involving the characters sexual prowess—which extends to some particularly raunchy stuff with Kazan—may well serve as a boon to Sandler’s ego, it too is worked way beyond its expiration date. (The continual super-sizing of the actor’s package via prosthetics is a visual motif we might have done without, and the “little old lady” aspect was far funnier in “The Producers.”)
Then there’s the whole stumblebum terrorist slapstick, which will strike a good many viewers as tasteless in the extreme, especially since so much of it involves the heavily made-up Schneider. And the slew of cameos by the likes of Chris Rock, Mariah Carey, John McEnroe, Talia Shire, George Takai, Henry Winkler and Bruce Vilanich (the latter looking rather like Jabba the Hutt) adds nothing positive to the mix. Nor does the characteristically heavy-handed direction by Dennis Dugan (“I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry”), which encourages everybody, from Sandler and Turturro on down, to mug ferociously in a vain attempt to breathe life into the mediocre material.
As a sketch, or even a series of sketches, on “Saturday Night Live,” the adventures of Zohan might have had a shot. But as a movie it’s disjointed and overextended, not to mention crass. In a word, it’s pretty much a mess itself.