You don't mess with the formula

"You don't mess with the Zohan" lacks the key ingredient that made Sandler's formula work: fun.

sandler zohan 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
sandler zohan 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
YOU DON'T MESS WITH THE ZOHAN 1 star out of 5 Directed by Dennis Dugan. Written by Adam Sandler, Robert Smigel and Judd Apatow. 113 minutes. In English and Hebrew, with Hebrew titles. With Adam Sandler, John Turturro, Emmanuelle Chriqui The reason you're reading a review of the latest Adam Sandler comedy, and the reason I'm writing it, is that in You Don't Mess with the Zohan, Sandler plays an Israeli - specifically, a crack Mossad commando who goes to New York to become a hairdresser. It's a tried-and-true mix for Sandler, whose movies tend to be among the most profitable in Hollywood. Take a few funny lines and gross-out slapstick, put them into a plot that can be summarized in a single sentence, then add a couple of motivational lines about staying true to yourself to give it a pinch of seriousness. You Don't Mess with the Zohan follows the formula slavishly (the believe-in-yourself stuff has been retooled to incorporate a little why-don't-we-all-just-get-along dialogue between the Israeli and Palestinian characters), but it lacks the key ingredient that made the formula work in the past: fun. That's largely because Sandler, at 41, seems too old for this. He's become so low-key he's barely there, emoting with a slightly glazed look that seems to be telling us: I know this is a piece of junk, but I couldn't turn down the paycheck. And, let's be honest: given that he gets paid around $20 million a picture, who could? There are certainly a few laughs during the nearly two-hour running time, but not nearly as many jokes as you would imagine, as if the producers spent the bulk of the film's budget on Sandler's massive salary and nothing on re-writes. So, they had to make do with five or six main comic routines that get run into the ground. The plot, such as it is, centers on super-macho Zohan Dvir (Sandler), the man who always gets the call when the higher-ups need to take down a terrorist. He gets frustrated when the guy he caught the month before is released in a prisoner swap and has to be recaptured (this is one of the few jokes that boasts a glimmer of sophistication). So when the Mossad (or is it the army? - it doesn't really matter) calls, he bids farewell to the bathing beauties who join him as he grills fish naked on the Tel Aviv shore, where he catches the whole fish, as well as hacky sacks, in his butt (you already knew you didn't want to see this, right?). Then he's off to take on his nemesis, the Phantom, played by John Turturro, a gifted and very funny actor. Those who remember him fondly as the over-the-top Jesus from The Big Lebowski will be disappointed that here, he is positively restrained. No one in the film gives the kind of big, bravura performance that could have made it really fun. Before Zohan takes on the Phantom, he confesses to his parents that his dream is to style hair and make it "silky smooth," a phrase that doesn't get many laughs the first time he utters it and even fewer when he repeats it approximately ten thousand times. The parents (Dina Doron and Shelley Berman), urge him, "Play it safe, stay in the army." Ha ha. They also ply him with gallons of hummus, one of the film's other running/limping jokes. Zohan even brushes his teeth in hummus. Pretending that the Phantom has killed him, Zohan sneaks off to New York where he plans to study his chosen craft with stylist Paul Mitchell (one of the film's more grating product placements, of which there are many). When that doesn't work, he helps out a beleaguered cyclist by twisting the man's nasty yuppie opponent into a pretzel shape with his martial-arts technique (another of the film's gags that quickly wears thin). The cyclist takes him home to his mother (Lainie Kazan), and she quickly jumps into bed with Zohan, which leads us to the next running joke: He's a sex machine with middle-aged and elderly women. (I already told you that you don't want to see this, didn't I?) Yes, the older gals can't resist his overstuffed crotch and this is a big help when he gets a job sweeping floors at a neighborhood hair salon run by Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui, who is best known for her role as Sloan on the HBO series, Entourage). The older women line up for his special attentions and Dalia, a sweet young Palestinian, is more concerned about a rent increase than the fact that her new hairdresser keeps disappearing into the back room with customers. The anemic plot kicks into slightly higher gear when some Palestinian cab drivers (one of whom is played by Rob Schneider) spot Zohan and recognize him. Deciding to expose the Phantom as a fraud and kill Zohan themselves, they start out by calling Hezbollah Customer Service. This proves to be one of the movie's funniest moments (when they press 4 for bomb-making materials, they get a recording telling them to call back when ceasefire talks break down). Eventually, after a lot of scenes in which the New York-based Palestinians and Israelis learn to love each other and fight together against the real enemy - real-estate developers - it's all over. Several throwaway cameos by such big names as Chris Rock, Mariah Carey, Kevin Nealon and John McEnroe don't do much for the movie, either. Carey spends most of her one scene talking about Bluetooth and it's not exactly a showstopper. For Israeli audiences, there is minimal fun to be had seeing some of the characters (including Zohan) speak Hebrew with each other, watching Israeli actors such as Dina Doron and Ido Mosseri in small roles and listening to Israeli pop on the soundtrack. The clever use of songs by Hadag Nahash, Dana International and Balkan Beat Box is the movie's one redeeming feature. If only the writers had shown the same sophistication and sense of fun as the film's musical director. Co-written by Sandler, Robert Smigel (a longtime Saturday Night Live writer) and the ubiquitous Judd Apatow (who directed Knocked Up and produced Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall), this movie has no excuse. It's a given that a lot of it would be in politically incorrect bad taste, and that's to be expected, but an unfunny comedy is unforgivable.