Friday, June 06, 2008

"You Don't Mess With the Zohan" -- * * *

*sigh* I fear I'm probably going to be alone on this one. If you've seen the trailer for Adam Sandler's latest, "You Don't Mess With the Zohan," directed by Dennis Dugan, you already knew that it was going to be stupid. Well, the movie itself is very stupid, even moreso than you might be expecting. But it's also imbued with such a high absurdity level, and strange, inspired asides and throwaway gags, that while I may not be proud, I also laughed a whole hell of a lot. We've grown to have a certain level of expectation from Sandler's movies, whether that's a good or bad thing for you, and we usually know exactly what we're getting; here, he goes a different route than we're used to seeing from him, and while this may not be saying much for some people, I think this is easily one of Sandler's better/funnier efforts. There's a consistent "Anchorman"-esque undercurrent of ridiculousness (if nowhere near that film's brilliant, inspired level), but I'd say "Zohan" is more in the vein of something like the first two "Austin Powers" films, with a balanced emphasis on the scatological and the absurd.

Having spent his first forty years as an invincible Israeli commando/superhero, Zohan Dviri (Sandler) has finally tired of all the incessant fighting in his native holy land, and wants to finally move to America and pursue his dream. That dream? Becoming a well-regarded hair stylist in New York City. With the help of his pelican friend, Zohan (a.k.a.: "The Zohan") fakes his death at the hands of comparably invincible Arab fighter, The Phantom (John Turturro). Smuggling himself aboard a NY-bound plane hiding inside a dog kennel, Zohan adopts his canine co-passengers' names and arrives in the U.S. introducing himself as Scrappy Coco, from Australia. While looking for work, he talks owner Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui) into letting him style women’s hair at her salon, all while staying with newfound friend Michael (Nick Swardson) and his horny mom (Lainie Kazan). With his tremendous styling skills, combined with his post-styling sexual intercouse, Zohan soon becomes NYC's most popular hair stylist with the senior citizen set. However, soon, his secret identity is revealed by Palestinian cabdriver Salim (Rob Schneider), who wants revenge on Zohan for unexplained reasons, and attempts to get in touch with the Phantom, to let him know his assassination victim is still alive.

It's established very early on that "Zohan" is not supposed to be taking place in any sort of realistic or real world, even for a Sandler flick; Those thrown by the anatomical-defying feet/leg gag from the trailer (very, very funny incidentally) should run for the hills now. Zohan swims fast enough to catch up with a motorboat, unscrews screws with his tongue, and does pushups with just his toes, while the Phantom runs on ceilings while doing acrobatics. Starting with an "I feel no pain"-off with the two soldiers/assassins one-upping each other with their threshold for agony, and culminating in a destruction-by-high-decibel-singing gag stolen from "Mars Attacks!," it's safe to say this is the craziest movie to ever have a rumored budget of 90 million dollars. Things are kept absurdist all the way through, and you're going to require a tolerance for the ridiculous to even approach this, let alone enjoy it. While some jokes of this variety (Zohan singlehandedly defeating two musclemen and a bull in a beach tug-of-war match) work better than others (a flashback of Zohan's hand being severed and then untying him) , this sort of humor tends to be up my alley, so I dug on most of it.

Sandler and his friends (Schneider, Dugan) are not necessarily the most comedically-astute or skilled filmmakers in the world, and virtually every one of their movies contains some tired, pre-teen baiting jokes relating to scatology and anatomy, and sigh-inducing ones you're surprised really remained in through the test screening process. Here, we get a Zohan ass shot in the first two minutes (though the paunchy Sandler is clearly using a butt double), followed by a joke about Zohan catching a fish -- and a hackey sack -- in his butt cheeks that may seem to confirm the fears of those in the audience worried about another Sandler movie (I myself thought I was a goner at this point). So while you must be prepared for a fairly lopsided hit-and-miss ratio of joke success, personally, I laughed at about two for every one I didn't. Even recurring jokes that seem to start off tired with the potential of getting annoying the more they're repeated, only get better by the stakes being upped as the movie goes on; everything silly is taken to absurdly silly levels that infuse them with inspiration. Even running jokes about Zohan's hackey sack skills and propensity for hummus had won me over by the times he (a) hackey sacks using a live cat, and (b) brushes his teeth with hummus, and puts out a fire with it. Even his skill of twisting people into pretzels grows increasingly, and enjoyably, ridiculous the more it's employed.

Through each step of Zohan's journey, I found the humor surprisingly well-paced/crafted, as it was rare a few minutes would go by without me laughing. Before his hair-cutting dream is fulfilled, his mom's throwaway recommendation to "Stay in the Army, play it safe" and him weeping "I just want to make people silky smooth!" curled up in bed are funny enough to establish that this movie's going to have a fairly oddball comedic voice, and that's only continued with Zohan's refusal to admit that he's Middle Eastern (he says he's from "Chaustralia"). Though glimpsed already in the trailers, Zohan's auditions at a black hair salon, and a kids' haircut place ("Whipper Snippers") both offer very funny inappropriate utilization of his Mossad skills, including a too-explicit description of the effects on a jugular slash to a 5-year-old. The revelation that Salim's impetus for revenge-seeking is Zohan taking his goat, and Zohan's insistence of punishing himself by stabbing himself with scissors are similarly taste-acquired gags that will work for some better than others. I also laughed at the handling of one of our racist redneck villains (Dave Matthews), who repeatedly talks about how Mel Gibson is the only guy who knows what he's talking about, and a gag that lists his likes as "The Lethal Weapon 1, 2, 3, What Women Want" and dislikes as "The Whole Foods, The George Clooney."

A subtle tip-off to the change of pace in store for Sandler fans is the shift in music; though his past movies seem to revel in '80s styles/themes/music, "Zohan" employs a cheesy '90s soundtrack, including Ace of Base's "Beautiful Life" and Technotronic's "Pump Up the Jam," to great effect. Whether you like it or not, this isn't the sort of middle-of-the-road, likeable-enough, barely-trying "LCD crowd pleaser" he's been prone to put out; this is a far stranger beast, and I don't know if all of his diehard pack of fans are going to make the jump with him. I enjoy "Mr. Deeds," "Big Daddy," "Click," etc. for what they are, but here Sandler is going balls-out and going back to playing an original character and not the lazy Sandler-esque shlump those movies offered, and a more refreshing out-there sensibility too. If comparable to any of his past works, it feels more similar to the early Sandler films like "Happy Gilmore" and "The Waterboy," with some "Little Nicky" thrown in; If that sounds more like a discouragement than a recommendation, "Zohan" probably ain't for you.

The supporting cast here does just fine, with the normally bleh Chriqui being adequately charming and grappling surprisingly well with her accent. Schneider and Swardson are, almost amazingly, the least annoying they've been in a Sandler movie (though when is Schneider finally going to be shot by some extremist for all his racist, offensive caricatures?). There are cameos that range from lame (Henry Winkler, Kevin James) to worthless (Kevin Nealon, Mariah Carey) to inspired (Chris Rock, Dave Matthews, John McEnroe). But, as slumming as he might be -- as he's wont to do in Sandler and Michael Bay movies -- the actor who seems to be having the most fun, and thus, the most fun to watch, is Turturro. As The Phantom, a celebrity terrorist/freedom fighter, who's defined by his hatred for Israel but has a more complex/softer side, he made me laugh whenever he was on screen, even making a tired MySpace joke tolerable with his delivery. It helps that he has the movie's funniest scene -- a hilarious "Rocky"-style training sequence where he punches a live slab of beef -- but while he goes missing for the movie's middle chunk, thankfully he returns at around the 80-minute mark for the third act.

Free of Sandler's hack-for-hire Tim Herlihy, "Zohan" benefits from the comedian's screenwriting collaboration with legitimate comic genius Robert Smigel and wonderful-if-overexposed Judd Apatow, on a script that supposedly has been sitting on a shelf for years. While Smigel's ridiculous, raunchy voice is everpresent, you can also tell much of this comes from Apatow's pen, though not the one you might be used to; rather than the wise-if-filthy comic sexual observations of his later works, this is most definitely more the Apatow who worked on the brilliant "Ben Stiller Show" than anything else. That said, I'm surprised this movie escaped with PG-13. While low-brow scatological jokes are not new to Sandler, there's a surprising, if welcome, greater emphasis on the sexual and raunchy material than we're used to, from Zohan telling elderly women at the salon "you've got the ass and tits of a schoolgirl" to his actual fucking of them after cutting their hair. At first, it's established that he views the intercourse as a polite thing to do ("I had to thank her!"), but eventually it becomes clear, in a refreshing twist, he actually enjoys banging the women. There's no Max Bialystock-style revulsion here, he's just a kindly weirdo who has a predilection for heavier, older ladies. I also enjoyed Zohan's penis dictating most of his actions/feelings (e.g.: his love for Chriqui is indicated by his dick not getting hard for other women) and having a life of its own so to speak (at one point, it waves goodbye).

Most of the media attention surrounding "Zohan" has been about the movie's touching upon the Israeli-Palestinean conflict, and while the movie focuses more on old-lady-fucking and disco-dancing, the subject is given much credence and screentime. Surprisingly, considering Sandler's real-life political dunderheadednss (e.g.: his campaign contributions to Rudy Giuliani), the movie isn't unremittingly pro-Israel, but actually keeps an even keel, embracing a "let's all get along" dynamic that actually feels sincere, unlike the mandated hypocritical apologizing ending of "Chuck and Larry." The movie also acknowledges the complexity of the situation, though avoids delving into it. The most we get in that department (wisely) is a Palestinean freedom fighter trying to explain mid-attack, "I'm just saying, it's not so cut and dry!" Once Zohan hits NYC, there's a clever gag about one side of the street being Israeli and the other being Palestinean, and Sandler's call for unity is rather sweet and well-intentioned; the unnecessary romance subplot actually serves a purpose this time around, since said love interest is Palestinean. The movie also implies, if not outright states, that Americans have more to fear from all-powerful corporations, and racist rednecks, than most Middle Easterns; in its own stupid way, it's heartening that the movie depicts Zohan joining forces with the Phantom at one point, and apparently, both sides of the conflict can come together on their love for Mariah Carey. It's extremely simplistic, obviously (this is a Sandler film, after all), but it's a genuinely nice gesture.

Last year's "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" was easily one of the most discomfiting, homophobic films to ever be given a national release (and it made gobs of money, of course), but it was hardly Sandler's films' only presentation of such attitudes -- intentional or unintentional. His works have been largely dominated by homophobia, and he seems to be incapable of making a movie without having a gay or gay-ish character we're meant to perceive as "gross" and who either (a) hits on Sandler, or (b) sticks something phallic in their mouth. It's a lame-ass, immature attempt to pander to 12-year-old boys' discomfort with homosexuality and perpetuate negative stereotypes. So, much to my surprise, in a movie that seems to cry out for low-blow gay jokes, the homophobia is kept to a minimum here. Aside from Zohan's parents laughing at him and assuming he's a "fageleh," the mockery is tamped down; there's a wildly flaming Gaysian Claude (Alec Mapa) working in the salon, but his homosexuality isn't really acknowledged, let alone included as an object of derision. There's also a late film throwaway gag involving cameos by gay celebs George Takei and Bruce Vilanch that any gay with a sense of humor should be able to laugh at. It may not be a huge compliment to say "it's not that homophobic!," but for Sandler, it's a step up.

When going through things that I found funny about "Zohan," there's virtually none of it that can be classified as "clever," "witty" or "defensible;" there are some/many people that are going to hate this movie, and not quite fathom how I could like it. But while I admit it could be a little shorter (an hour and 45 minutes is a bit much to ask for something this brainless), this sort of brash, original, moronic lunacy is my cup 'o tea, and you'll know very early on if it's yours. This may be -- okay, is -- a stupid movie, but it's a really ambitious stupid movie, and not only features numerous things I never thought I'd see in a film, it represents a unique inching in the absurdist direction that I think more dumb comedies could benefit from. Throw into that a fairly sincere, surprisingly resonant message about following your dreams and being who you are, despite what anyone thinks, and you have an appealing (at least to me) blend of heart and supreme idiocy.


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