“You Don’t Mess with the Zohan" — 2 & ½ popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

Lest you be thought a fool, you don’t recommend “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” without prefacing. Stuff like, ‘Maybe I’m crazy. I know it isn’t good filmmaking and it’s completely stupid, but hey, Adam Sandler makes me laugh.’ It’s pretty much what folks said decades ago about Jerry Lewis. Guiltily enjoyed or not, belly laughs are to be had.

Mr. Sandler dominates as Zohan, a peerless, fists of fury Mossad agent who would rather cut hair than fight. But Israel, nay, the free world, needs him. Besides, he’s afraid to come out of the hairstyling closet and admit his true passion…especially to his parents. Otherwise, he’s you’re typical spy/hero, only more so.

In a film that lines up the stereotypes and wrestles them until they say uncle, the gay/hairdresser thing gets the wildest debunking. A bizarre, no-holds-barred send-up of Warren Beatty’s slick operator in “Shampoo” (1975) with a touch of Borat Sagdiyev tossed in just to impress the proclivity, Zohan is all womanizer, and proud of it.

This is delivered Adam Sandler style. Which is to say, in a barrage of adolescent smirk and snark. Zohan is arrogant to the point of absurdity…and that’s just the point. Maybe there’ll be a little lesson in humility down the line. But for now, like any self-absorbed 14-year-old, the 40ish Zohan is motivated by fantasy and hormones.

Still, there is duty and obligation. So, whilst battling analogous archenemy The Phantom, a Palestinian terrorist etched with ridiculous delight by John Turturro, he stages his demise. The Phantom nets new fame and a chain of restaurants. Zohan heads for New York, his mission to make humankind “silky smooth.”

Shades of every farce about a rube who hits the big city in search of a dream, he soon finds that not only won’t his idol, hairstyling guru Paul Mitchell (John Paul DeJoria), interview him, but he’s impolitely asked to leave the premises. Exiting in a showy flourish of karate chops, he vows his triumphant return.

Serendipitously, after just happening to save Michael’s (Nick Swardson) life, he makes his first N.Y. friends. Zohan is invited over the house for dinner and, much to his host’s horror, repays the kindness by sleeping with his mom, Gail (Lainie Kazan). He identifies himself as Scrappy Coco…not Israeli, mind you, but half Australian, half Mt. Everest.

They offer him a place to stay. With things looking up, circumstances lead him to a neighborhood where Jewish and Palestinian merchants live in relative peace. Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui), a Palestinian hair salon owner acceding to Scrappy’s zeal, hires the Mt. Everest-Australian, but only as a hair sweeper.

However, when a haircutter quits, Zohan gets his big chance. Applying a rather sensual technique that ends with a special, post-styling session in the back room, he is soon legend among the older ladies. And Dalia, who’s been besieged by a relentlessly rent-raising landlord, gets a little relief.

The antics, not as creative as they are strange and outrageous, rise to a crescendo of insanity. And each time you think it can’t get nuttier, Sandler turns up the crazy quotient. Whether or not it crosses the line will depend on your own bad taste threshold. But unlike some practitioners of le comedie bleu, his lunacy is never mean-spirited.

Rather, if director Dennis Dugan’s film, co-written by Judd Apatow, Robert Smigel and Mr. Sandler, can be accused of anything, it is pie-in-the-sky idealism. Applying the simplest clichés and solutions to its madcap microcosm of the world’s problems, it almost seems to believe its comic panacea. We know better. Still, even faux peace feels good.

Of course, before we can even contemplate that, all manner of hell must break loose, told to the backdrop of an emerging love story. Yep, Zohan has fallen for his comely boss, or so his pals assure him after he can no longer, well, hear the call of the lothario. Thus the stage is set for a Middle Eastern Romeo and Juliet, Big Apple edition.

This means misunderstandings, instigated by a mysterious third party as well as by a triad of Phantom wannabes looking to cash in on Zohan’s subterfuge. And after much conflagration we arrive at film’s message: There’s always someone who sees the profit in perpetuating racial hatred. Sandler stops short of awarding himself the Nobel Peace Prize.

You exit the Bijou with a sheepish smile, hoping your Ph.D. mentor doesn’t spot you, but ready to blurt, “Where is it written that one can’t enjoy the naïve pipe dreams of a 14-year-old every so often?” You’ll get no argument from Sandler. Juvenile as his formula is, “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan” is proof that you also don’t mess with the success.

“You Don’t Mess with the Zohan,” rated PG-13, is a Columbia Picture’s release directed by Dennis Dugan and stars Adam Sandler, Emmanuelle Chriqui and John Turturro. Running time: 113 minutes

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