Six years after 9/11 Hollywood has struggled to make films that deal with the fallout from that tragic day and still connect with audiences. Earnest films like Grace is Gone and Stop Loss have played to empty seats, while action oriented movies like United 93 and The Kingdom garnered good critic response but apathy from ticket buyers.
Considering the graveness of the subject matter it seems odd to report that in recent months a new genre of film has sprung up—the Post 9/11 Comedy. At the box office comedies have had a better run at tackling subjects like terrorism, racial profiling and how the war on terror has spiraled out of control.
Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay and War Inc were both darkly funny films that took on very serious subjects and skewered them with humor while attracting audiences. Now it’s Adam Sandler’s turn. Teaming up with comedy guru Judd Apatow (The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up) Sandler has crafted a film about Israeli / Palestinian relations that is the silliest ode to tolerance to ever hit the big screen.
Sandler is Zohan, a hard partying Mossad counter terrorist agent—he’s like Rembrandt with a grenade his admirers say—who fakes his own death so he can leave the violence of his home country, move to America and follow his dream to become a hairstylist at the flagship Paul Mitchell Salon in Manhattan. Things don’t go quite as planned and when he instead ends up working with, and falling for Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui) a beautiful Palestinian woman his outlook on life is changed forever. Now if only Dalia’s race baiting landlord and some enemies from back home would leave them alone they could live happily ever after.
You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is above all else an extremely harebrained comedy. For every reasonably clever line about Israeli / Palestinian relations like, “They’ve been fighting for two thousand years, it can’t last much longer,” there are five scenes that make earlier Sandler movies like Happy Gilmour look like Molière.
Although the jokes are written on the approximate level of a Carry On movie—apparently crotch humor is the new toilet joke—Sandler’s goofy charm carries the film. It takes considerable chutzpah to carry off a scene where a simple hair salon shampoo morphs into an unsexy take-off from 9 ½ Weeks, but Sandler is so guileless and has so much audience goodwill that the scene plays to big laughs.
One of the unexpected pleasures of You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is playing Spot the Cameo. The movie is packed with unexpected casting from the legendary 82-year-old comedian Shelley Berman (a candidate for the “I thought he was dead” file if there ever was one) to Star Trek’s George Takei having fun with his newly announced lifestyle choice to the prim and proper Mrs. Garrett from The Fact of Life, Charlotte Rae, as an elderly sex starved salon patron. Even musicians Dave Matthews and Mariah Carey pop up as a hillbilly racist-for-hire and pop diva respectively.
You Don’t Mess with the Zohan lags for a time in its middle section—the romance angle is as flavorless as Zohan’s ever present hummus without the garlic—but makes up for the dull spots with a mix of outrageous action sequences, bad one liners (“Are you bionic?” asks a bystander after witnessing one of Zohan’s incredible feats of strength. “No I only like the girls!” he says.) and a message of tolerance that would seem heavy-handed if it wasn’t so heartfelt.
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