Zohan: Laff Scuffle, Not Laff Riot

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Adam Sandler in Don't Mess With the Zohan

You Don't Mess with the Zohan's premise is so vivid and promising — a legendary Israeli counter terrorist wants to give up violence and find his bliss as a hair stylist — that it entered funny movie legend land months in advance of its release. Ideas like that don't occur every day in Hollywood. Or every year for that matter.

Now, at last, our impatience is rewarded and I must say the result is a laff riot. Well, all right, a laff scuffle — a picture that isn't quite as funny as it might be, but is as funny as it needs to be. Agreeably directed by Dennis Dugan, conceived by its star, Adam Sandler, and one-third written by him (his co-conspirators are Robert Smigel and Judd Apatow), the picture bears many of the latter's trademark moves. That is to say it is simultaneously a little bit vulgar and a little bit sentimental and comes out as a virtually bullet-proof blend for the mass, summertime audience.

Very simply, The Zohan fakes his own death at the hands of his arch-enemy, The Phantom, a Palestinian terrorist (a devoutly nasty John Turturro), ships himself to New York in an airplane's cargo hold, which he shares with two dogs named Scrappy and Coco, whom he puts to sleep with his non-stop monologue. The mutts provide him with a nom de stylist (Scrappy Coco). After landing, a mild mannered young man named Michael (Nick Swardson), whom Zohan rescues from a snooty street bully (his habit is to literally tie bad guys into knots), provides him with a spare room. He also provides an older woman, who just happens to be Michael's Mom (Lainie Kazan in lustful fettle), who cheerfully adopts Zohan as her boy toy, much to her son's dismay.

"Cheerful" is the operative word here. The sheer good nature of all concerned disarms the movie's constant flirtations with bad taste. For example, The Zohan gets a job in a rundown beauty parlor and rises from sweeping up the floor to creating sweeping hair-dos — and incidentally to providing sexual services for its aging clientele. It's a variation on a gag that happily served Mel Brooks in The Producers, and as in that enterprise, the result is more innocent merriment than discomfort for the audience. But still...issues keep arising.

For one thing Delia, the shop's proprietor and Zohan's love interest, is a Palestinian (the very attractive Emmanuelle Chriqui) and, indeed, the shop is located on a rundown street, one side of which is occupied by Israeli shopkeepers, while the other is rented out to Palestinians. They exist in uneasy, yet potentially volatile, harmony. They are, however, threatened by a greedy realtor who's raising their rents in order to drive them out so he can erect a neighborhood-busting shopping mall.

Can love, laughter and a common enemy solve — at least locally — the Arab-Israeli conflict? This movie seems to think so, though genial humanism may strike you as a pretty slender hope for so titanic an issue. And it's a big narrative lurch, too, which maybe we shouldn't dwell upon. Much better to focus on the purely comedic, beginning with Sandler's performance. It offers hilarious satire on James Bondian heroics. And Zohan's manic desire to provide "silky smooth" hair dressing represents good comic value, too. There's always been a sweet disconnectedness to Sandler's screen character, and when it is married to his contrasting, obsessive quest for a peaceful, more or less conventional civilian life, as it is here, this slightly rickety movie bounces along very likeably. It's just out for a good, slightly silly, time. And against all common sense, you find yourself rooting for these nice people, hoping they find the modest happiness, which is all they aspire to and which, goofily, they attain.