What makes these scenes the funniest, and the most oddly touching, in the otherwise overstuffed muddle that is You Don't Mess with the Zohan is that Sandler plays them with maniacal focus — not to mention a new and improved bod — that suggests he's enjoying the break from his customary schlubby self. Zohan isn't just a lampoon of the Israeli he-man. He's every Jewish nerd's wet dream of self-transformation.
A pity, then, that our man is soon overcome by career crisis. Faking his own death, Zohan resurfaces in an awful '80s shag (think Warren Beatty in that other hair movie) and clutching an ancient Paul Mitchell catalog to realize a long-held dream of becoming a hairdresser in New York. Renamed Scrappy Coco after the two pooches he restyled on the trip over, Zohan blow-dries his way to success and falls for his sexy Arab salon boss (Emmanuelle Chriqui, suffering through assorted reaction shots) while heading off a simmering Arab-Israeli expatriate race war in the 'hood. If nothing else — and there isn't much else — You Don't Mess with the Zohan pronounces the Middle East fair game for comedy.
Like most film projects involving swarthy skin tone, the screenplay for Zohan, co-written by Sandler, Robert Smigel, and Judd Apatow before Apatow became hot stuff, was quietly shelved after 9/11, then cautiously revived with fictitious country names and a namby-pamby quarrel over orange groves, then shelved again. With the Middle East returned to Hollywood's table (albeit mostly tucked into thrillers), back comes this latest endeavor from Happy Madison Productions with feuding Israelis and Arabs, Hezbollah call centers, and bomb plots fully reinstated. Score one for freedom of expression, I suppose, and pushed far enough into outrage, the movie might have had something pungent to say about the Israeli-Palestinian standoff. As it is, the American way rides to the rescue: Even sworn enemies rub along nicely living side by side in New York, no? Worse, Israelis may be conniving in Zohan, but the Palestinians are downright stupid rubes who, when it comes to explosives, don't know their nitroglycerin from their Neosporin. No wonder that's Rob Schneider we see mugging away as a Palestinian cab driver with a parochial score to settle with Scrappy — I doubt any self-respecting Arab actor would touch the role.
For a caper whose antic pacing is clearly beamed at mini-mohawked boys and their bravely smiling dates — neither group was exactly rolling in the aisles at the screening I attended — Zohan comes in a curiously arcane package more likely to induce thigh-slapping among Tel Aviv elders or Jewish-Americans who took their semester abroad in Israel circa 1985.
Everyone knows the Mossad, but outside of New York, who's going to warm to multiple set pieces making fun of Israelis and Palestinians who scratch out a living peddling knock-off electronics to unsuspecting consumers in Manhattan? Or, for that matter, a running send-up of the Israeli macho man that's dated by at least a decade? Never mind that the average young Israeli male today is more likely to be found getting high in Phuket than beating his chest as he offs Arabs deep in the Occupied Territories or balls anything in a skirt in New York.
Under the direction of Dennis Dugan, Sandler has made a string of pretty indefensible hits like Big Daddy and Happy Gilmore. Strictly speaking, the undisciplined Zohan, crowded with gratuitous drop-ins by what seems to be the entire social circle of its cast and crew — Mariah Carey, John McEnroe, Shelley Berman, Bruce Vilanch, and others who should all be on the cutting-room floor — is no better. But as one of roughly two American critics who found I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry endearing, I like Sandler's trademark combination of shock tactics and sweetness, his dweeby affection for the old, the fat, the ugly, and the generally peripheral. Given his courtliness toward little old ladies, I was less offended than some will be by the scenes of Zohan shtupping his retiree clients — among them the irrepressible Lainie Kazan — after giving them their blue rinses. This shameless shtick may have been cooked up as a sick joke by Apatow, who's prone to such high jinks just to goose the ageism police. But there's a crazed good-heartedness to it, as if Sandler had elected to assemble all the solicitous Jewish mothers he's ever known and give them a great big Oedipal prezzie just for being who they are. My own Jewish mother probably wouldn't go in the back room with him, but she'd sure wish him well.