Mention the name Adam Sandler-a brand, a personality type, and invitation to low expectations-and several things leap to mind, including the great American tradition of protracted adolescent humor, swagger mixed with idiocy, and the light side of the SNL comedy ethos. So far in his filmography, Sandler has been involved in one near-masterpiece, Punch-Drunk Love, but that was mostly thanks to its creator, P.T. Anderson. In fact, by those low standards, Sandler’s latest, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, scores a pretty respectable “could be worse” rating.
With his latest nutty romp, Sandler adds to his list a combo-character named Zohan, an Israeli counterterrorist turned N.Y.C. hairdresser-a valiant attempt to inject some well-meant humor into the Israeli-Palestinian quandary. It doesn’t hurt that Zohan’s foe is a hubristic Palestinian terrorist played by the wondrous John Turturro. Even if half the jokes fizzle on impact, and even if the movie’s loftier goals are left half-achieved, Zohan has a surprising success rate. Sandler may be growing up, in some small way. Zohan carries the unmistakable imprint of comedy guru Judd Apatow, a cowriter on the team that also included Sandler and the ingenious Robert Smigel. Here we get a box office-approved, Apatow-esque mix of absurdity, raunch, and ultimate sentimentality.
Many American comedies lose their way and their buzz of audacity on the tricky path between narrative propulsion and the giddy rat-a-tat of jokes, and Zohan is no exception. We can almost pinpoint the spot where it heads south, during a climactic hacky sack tournament between Israelis and Palestinians and a disastrous cameo with Mariah Carey. Suddenly, the comic soda has gone flat, and we’re left bored during the inevitable interethnic showdown (a potentially funny satire of that other Turturro classic, Do the Right Thing).
Naturally, Zohan benefits from the seasonal dumbing-down of movie audiences during this onramp to summertime. Our defenses and intellectual demands plummet as the temperatures rise and the multiplexes fill with cine-fizz. Oscar contenders take a holiday, and the Zohans of the world prevail, in all their half-baked glory and good intentions gone semi-pale.