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The Movie Review: 'You Don’t Mess with the Zohan'

Hummus is funny. Scratch that: Hummus is hilarious. It’s got a weird name. It’s gooey. It’s foreign. Like, imagine if someone dipped their eyeglasses in hummus and then licked the hummus off--that’d be pretty hysterical, right? Or what if someone combed hummus into his hair. Or put hummus on the cat. Or used a whole giant tub of hummus to hose down a fire. Or how about this: One rich New York executive asks another what hummus is--because, I mean, how could he possibly know?--and the second guy tells him, “It’s a very tasty diarrhea-like substance.”

How you respond to the preceding paragraph will probably give you a pretty good idea of whether you should see You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, Adam Sandler’s latest exploration of the cinema of adolescence. As is so often the case, Sandler plays a character pulled between the competing poles of masculine aggression and boyish sweetness. (In his most ambitious performance, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, this duality was advertised right in the title.) This time, though, the split is literalized--or, rather, professionalized: Sandler’s Zohan is a superhuman Israeli counter-terrorism agent who wants to quit the Army and become--wait for it--a hairdresser.

To this end, he fakes his own death in a confrontation with his Palestinian nemesis, the Phantom (John Turturro), and smuggles himself to New York in a dog carrier, taking his co-travelers’ names as his own, “Scrappy Coco.” Upon arrival, he immediately visits the Paul Mitchell salon looking for a job, pausing briefly to rub his crotch against the glass front door to signal his enthusiasm. Remarkably, he does not find employment there, nor at a black women’s hair boutique, nor at a kids barbershop. He eventually insinuates himself into a salon run by a beautiful Palestinian named Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui), where he sets about Warren Beattying his way through the clientele, a la Shampoo. The gag is that rather than offer carnal solace to the likes of Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn, and Lee Grant, he instead boinks a series of grateful sexa-, septua-, octo-, and nonogenarians in the salon’s back room. As he explains while putting off one eager client, “First, I have to cut and bang Mrs. Greenhouse.”

It’s a crude joke, though one possessing a certain geriatric inclusiveness. (Viewers will be unsurprised to find Judd Apatow among the film’s credited screenwriters.) But, like so much in this film, it’s a joke stretched far past endurance. In one sequence (of many), we’re treated to Zohan coming out of the back room with an old lady; and then with a really old lady; and then with a really really old lady; and then with a really old black lady; and then with two really old ladies. I waited, in vain, for Dr. Ruth to make a cameo.

Beyond such excesses, the film suffers from a somewhat untethered central character. The obvious model for Sandler’s hairdressing superhero is Mike Myers’s Austin Powers. But Myers’s parody had very clear subjects--Bond, obviously, but also Our Man Flint, “The Avengers,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” and on and on. The joke was already set up; he had only to deliver the punchlines. Zohan, by contrast, is a send-up of a cipher, a reworking of a character type with which few American moviegoers are likely to be familiar: the Israeli beach hippie, at once hyper-masculine and touchy feely, equally adept at commando missions, hacky sack, and “disco.”

It’s a difficult feat to manage irony without antecedent, so rather than opt for knowing caricature--like, say, Adam Goldberg’s The Hebrew Hammer--Zohan mostly opts for empty farce: topical humor for people unfamiliar with the topic. So we get the deluge of hummus jokes, the comically exaggerated accents (the entire cast coughs up their “h”’s as if they were hairballs), and several dozen invented (I hope) Yiddishisms for genitalia and what may be done with them. (“I think the right thing to do is to tap you so hard my shtize comes out your poopeh.”)

It’s a pity, because Zohan does have its intermittent amusements. Sandler seems more relaxed than he has in many roles--less overwound manchild than clueless hedonist--and the slapstick, though scattershot, hits the mark now and then. There are moments, too, when the movie hones its cultural satire into something a tad sharper: the portrayal of a shyster electronics store (“the insides is Sony”), for instance, or the call that would-be terrorists who track Zohan down in New York make to the “Hezbollah Hotline.” (A recording tells them that bombmaking assistance is currently unavailable owing to peace talks with Israel, but will be restored “as soon as negotiations break down.”)

Such moments are few and far between, though, as any political edges the movie might have had have been carefully filed down. The film’s Israeli and Palestinian antagonists bicker tepidly for a while, but quickly decide they’re more alike than different. Before you know it, they’re making common cause against more socially acceptable enemies--a corporate developer and his white supremacist henchmen, natch.

In a Times article on Zohan’s potentially risqué subject matter, Ahmed Rehab of the Council on American-Islamic Relations admitted that, given Sandler’s previous work, “I would say I’m a little worried.” I felt much the same way, though for different reasons. Rehab needn’t have worried. I was right to.