Movie Review: You Don't Mess With the Zohan
By Matthew Huntley
June 12, 2008

It's good to see the return of Brady Bunch men's wear.

Most of the time, any movie that has Adam Sandler speaking with an accent or goofy voice (The Waterboy, Little Nicky) isn't very good. But that's mostly a coincidence, because it's not the accents that are turnoffs but the characters themselves, who can simply be annoying or uninteresting. That's why it comes as such a welcoming surprise that Sandler's Zohan, an Israeli counter-terrorist, is so likable, affectionate and, ironically enough, gentle (not all counter-terrorists are like that).

Right off the bat, let me say You Don't Mess with the Zohan is one of Sandler's funniest comedies. I don't like to start reviews with this kind of praise, but in the long and winding road of Adam Sandler comedies, which can be hit or miss, this means something. Thankfully, Zohan has more in common with Austin Powers than Big Daddy or Mr. Deeds. It's not mean and pandering like those movies, nor does it go for unearned sentimentality during the final act. It's often hilarious and there were a dozen or so times I found myself laughing out loud. Had it gone through the editing process one more time, and perhaps trimmed ten minutes off itself, it would have been even tighter, but I'd rather have it be a little slow than offensive.

The movie opens as Zohan (Sandler) struts down the beach in his cutoff jeans and sleeveless shirt. He shakes his hips and sticks out his bulging crotch (this is actually more funny than it is disturbing). The wind blows in Zohan's unruly hair as he poses for the women, plays Hacky Sack with the guys, and engages in tug of war with a bull. The images are zany and over-the-top, but they contain a tongue-in-cheek quality that lets us know everybody is having fun.

Zohan's vacation gets interrupted by the Israeli army, who once again need the expert Mossad agent to capture his arch nemesis, a Palestinian terrorist who calls himself The Phantom (John Turturro). But Zohan is tired of always being the go-to guy when it comes to thwarting Israel's enemies. He doesn't find counter-terrorism fulfilling any more and tells his mother and father (Dina Doronne and Shelley Berman) he wants to go to America to be a hair stylist, "to make the hair silky smooth." They laugh in his face.

During an uproarious (and surprisingly thrilling) action sequence, Zohan takes out an entire Palestinian compound by himself. The man is so good he can turn around in the blink of a frame and catch bullets with his teeth. He chases The Phantom into the ocean for a game of water ping pong with a live grenade, which gives Zohan the perfect opportunity to fake his own death. He sneaks on a flight to New York with two dogs named Scrappy and Coco and appropriately assumes the name "Scrappy Coco." Zohan's goal is to work for Paul Mitchell, but after he's turned away, he makes friends with Michael (Nick Swardson) and even better friends with Michael's mother (Lainie Kazan), with whom he "makes the sticky."

Unable to find a stylist job at more reputable salons, Zohan enters the Palestinian-Israeli district, where his friend Oori (Ido Mosseri) runs a "Going Out of Business" electronic store. He points Zohan to a Palestinian salon across the street, run by the ravishing Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui). To prove he's worthy of cutting hair, Zohan performs no-handed pushups and treats a chair like a pummel horse. Dalia makes him hair sweeper and Zohan doesn't let one piece drop on the floor. One of the movie's biggest laughs comes when Zohan gets his first string of customers, all of them old ladies, whom he sensualizes with the shampoo and a showerhead...and then later with other things in other places.

The underlying plot, which is actually serviceable for a dumb comedy like this, revolves around a business tycoon (Michael Buffer, the "Let's get ready to rumble" guy) wanting to tear down the Israeli-Palestinian community to put up a new mall. There's also the matter of Salim (Rob Schneider), a taxi driver who wants revenge against the Zohan for stealing his precious goat back in Israel. During a semi-amusing scene, Salim calls the Hezbollah hotline, where the answering service says things like (in English mind you), "For terrorist supplies, press 5."

You Don't Mess with the Zohan mostly works because we enjoy the titular hero's company. He's sweet, noble and open-minded and we take pleasure in watching him adapt to American culture. Sandler, who co-wrote the screenplay with Robert Smigel and Judd Apatow, owes a lot to Mike Myers and the original Austin Powers, another comedy about a government agent adjusting to a different place. But I still enjoyed watching Zohan tackle a wig of dreads, play Hacky Sack with a cat, and put hummus on just about anything.

The ending is perfunctory and breaks down to a standard conclusion in which all the Israelis and Arabs come together to break bread. But you know what? A movie can pretend, even dream. At least it maintains its goofiness and doesn't resort to the kind of soppy moralizing we're used to at the end of most Sandler comedies.

Zohan is too long to sustain its initial energy (it runs nearly two hours), and it does wear thin by the time a group of rednecks (led by Dave Matthews) try to tear down the Middle Eastern city block. But I was surprised by how charming it was most of the time. Yes, there are stereotypes in the movie, but they're deliberate and hardly serious. There's a funny line when an Israeli says to an Arab, "People hate me because they think I'm you," pointing out Americans' ugly tendency to group Middle Easterners into one lump category.

I won't argue that Zohan has a powerful agenda other than to entertain, but it makes us laugh. Adam Sandler is a nice guy in real life and I give him credit for always trying to make something fun and good-natured, even if it doesn't always come across that way. Zohan is and does.