Let me be blunt: You Don’t Mess With the Zohan is the finest post-Zionist action-hairdressing sex comedy I have ever seen. That it is the only one I have ever seen — and why is that? What cultural deficiency or ideological conspiracy has prevented this genre from flourishing? — does not much detract from my judgement.
Coiffed: Adam Sandler plays Zohan, a hair-dresser on a mission.
Directed by Dennis Dugan from a script by Judd Apatow, Robert Smigel and Adam Sandler (who also stars), Zohan has its share of scatology, crude sexual humour and queasy homophobia, the basic elements from which male-centred Hollywood comedies are constructed these days. There are supporting roles for stand-up comedians (Ahmed Ahmed, Nick Swardson) and Saturday Night Live veterans (Rob Schneider, Kevin Nealon), a few oddball cameos (Shelley Berman, Chris Rock) and exquisitely random “as themselves” appearances by John McEnroe and Mariah Carey. Why not?
You might also think, as I certainly did, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict presents a singularly unpromising source of laughs. But as Yitzhak Rabin once said, enough of blood and tears. He did not go on to propose semen, urine, shampoo or hummus as substitutes, but those are, for Dugan, Smigel, Apatow and Sandler, the substances that come most readily to hand.
And the film-makers spray all this stuff around in a brave and noble cause. American diplomatic efforts have so far proved inadequate to the task of bringing peace to West Asia, but You Don’t Mess With the Zohan taps into deeper and more durable sources of American global power in its quest for a plausible end to hostilities. Ancient grievances and festering hatreds are no match for the forces of sex, money, celebrity and exuberant, unapologetic stupidity.
Zohan (Sandler) certainly seems to think so, though he might express his views differently, and certainly with a thicker accent. A highly skilled military operative who specializes in counterterrorism, he is basically a less anguished version of the character played by Eric Bana in Munich.
But only part of Zohan’s life is carefree, and it’s the other part — the job that requires heavy weapons, deadly stealth and hand-to-hand combat with a superterrorist called the Phantom (John Turturro) — that drives him into the diaspora. Zohan may have a picture of Moshe Dayan on his bedroom wall, but his real idol is Paul Mitchell, the American hair-care mogul whose outdated styles Zohan studies as if they were pages of the Talmud. And so, like everyone else with a dream, he migrates to New York, where he finds an entry-level job at a salon run by a pretty Palestinian named Dalia.
A romance between them seems at once inevitable and unthinkable, but the taboos that You Don’t Mess With the Zohan is unwilling to smash are few indeed. The movie is principally interested in establishing its main character as a new archetype in the annals of Jewish humour. Sex, for Zohan, is like hummus: There is an endless supply, and no occasion on which it could be judged inappropriate. In his feathery 1980s haircut and loud, half-buttoned shirts, Zohan joins a long tradition, stretching back from Will Ferrell through Steve Martin to the great Jerry Lewis himself, of goofballs who mistake themselves for studs and turn out to be right.
The film’s image of Israelis as hopelessly behind the pop-culture curve — Zohan’s musical taste belongs to the same era as his hairdo — is itself something of an anachronism. And the willingness of American Jewish film-makers to mock their West Asian cousins is also a subtle, unmistakable sign of cultural maturity.
©2008/The New York Times
You Don’t Mess With the Zohan released in theatres on Friday
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