As high concepts go, "You Don't Mess With the Zohan" takes the cake: Adam Sandler plays an Israeli commando who pursues his dream of becoming a hairstylist in New York. Could the film possibly be as funny as its trailer?
Not exactly. "Zohan" coasts on its premise far more often than it fulfills it. But these days, you take your laughs where you find them. It's a pretty good scattershot comedy.
Sandler came up with the idea of the Zohan character and then, with his co-writers Robert Smigel and the omnipresent Judd Apatow, worked it up into what amounts to a glorified "Saturday Night Live" sketch stretched to almost two hours. (Question: Why are current comedies so much longer than they need to be? "Sex and the City" was almost 2-1/2 hours!)
Zohan Dvir, Israel's most famous counterterrorist resembles a hairy, bizarro cross between James Bond, Spider-Man, Borat, and Brad Pitt. When called upon to eliminate his nemesis, the bling-festooned Palestinian terrorist Phantom (a hilarious John Turturro), he uses the occasion to fake his own death. Stowing away on a plane bound for the promised land of Manhattan, he clutches his bible – his hallowed 1987 Paul Mitchell style book.
Zohan wants to make the world "silky smooth" but his stylings are so outdated that he can only find work in a salon catering to old ladies. Its owner is the beautiful Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui), a Palestinian who doesn't quite buy Zohan's cover story about being Australian. For one thing, he loves hummus too much. (This movie finds more uses for hummus than you can possibly imagine, some of them unprintable, all of them funny.)
Zohan becomes the star of the salon not only because of his dos – he also throws in some extracurricular "activities" for the clientele, and soon ladies of a certain age are lining up around the block. A little of this gonzo humor goes a long way, especially since it only seems to be in the movie to demonstrate that Zohan is emphatically not gay. Didn't Warren Beatty's turn in "Shampoo" count for anything?
Much better is the way "Zohan" stirs the melting pot. The Manhattan of this movie is a multiethnic carnival where old world and new world are constantly intermixing. A Palestinian cab driver (Rob Schneider) does double duty from his taxi as a phone salesman for the Spiegel catalog. An Israeli electronics salesman (Ido Mosseri) haggles with his landlord about rent as if he were bartering in a flea market. Director Dennis Dugan's fondness for these cultural collisions dampens the inherent iffiness of the material. This is, after all, a comedy featuring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as its centerpiece and terrorism as its mainstay.
Some of the dampening comes across as just plain mushy. When one of the characters, in his best "West Side Story" mode, announces that "Here in America we're the same, we live together," the nobility of the sentiment is essentially just a cover for the filmmakers' bad taste. And how do the Palestinians and Israelis finally bond in "Zohan"? By decimating neo-Nazis of course. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
There's an alternate bonding ritual in "Zohan" that I much prefer. Both sides are gaga for Mariah Carey (who makes an addled appearance). Does the State Department know about this? Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content throughout, language and nudity.)