You Don’t Mess with the Zohan


Directed by Dennis Dugan.

Written by Adam Sandler, Robert Smigel, and Judd Apatow.

Director of Photography, Michael Barrett.

Starring Adam Sandler, John Turturro, Emmanuelle Chriqui, and a whole lot of friends of Adam Sandler.


It’s been said before; it’s been said to me before; it’s been said by me before – horror and comedy and are the only two forms of movie-making that can instantly be described as successful or not, depending on the answer to one simple question. 


In horror:  “Is it scary?” 


In comedy:  “Is it funny?” 


If the answer is no, oh well.  If the answer is yes, then anything afterwards is icing.  Or nougat, depending on whether we’re using cake or candy for the metaphor.


You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is funny.  Underlined.  Exclamation point.  Of course, that’s a subjective opinion, but that’s the best opinion I got.  I personally laughed a whole lot throughout the running time.  Is it an expertly composed film in every aspect?  Not at all.  Does that matter?  Not at all.  It’s funny.  That is all.


I should back up a bit and affirm that I’m a fan of Adam Sandler.  I watch his movies every time one gets released – usually on DVD nowadays, but occasionally first-run in the theater.  I love the whole history of Saturday Night Live comedians, but I technically grew up on the Sandler-Farley-Rock generation.  Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore are perennials, and his rarely-mentioned comedy albums are great.  From there on, the track record grows inarguably shakier. 


Even still, I find that the legion of Sandler detractors just plain haven’t seen most of the movies.  Just to take the last few:  50 First Dates is imperfect but still a far better-constructed movie than you might expect.  The Longest Yard, at the very least, had the balls to stick with the fate of the Caretaker character from the original (which was a ballsy move).  While Click was mostly unfunny, it had some interesting ideas and to me, it was actually very affecting by the end, due in large part to Sandler’s performance.  But then I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry was unwatchable to me, so understand that I’m not working from the position of unwavering fealty. 


I just think Sandler makes good-hearted movies more consistently than most anyone, and I’m just plain always rooting for the guy.  Punch-Drunk Love thoroughly justified that inclination, and I keep looking for it in the stuff Sandler produces himself.  I’m not alone – the numbers prove it.  He’s the most successful film comedian of this era, bar none.  Plus, you gotta love the fact that the hugest comedy star in the world is loyal enough to his buddies that he keeps them all working.  Well, you don’t have to, but I love that fact.


And now he’s written You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. 


And not alone.  Look at those writing credits.  No need to explain at this point why the name Judd Apatow on a comedy should instill a certain level of trust.   Seven quick reasons:  Freaks & Geeks, Undeclared, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express. 


But how about that third name?  SMIGEL.  Robert Smigel, a certified comedy titan.  Best known these days as Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Smigel wrote most of the best stuff for Saturday Night Live and Late Night With Conan O’Brien.  His TV Funhouse sketch “The Baby The Immigrant & The Guy On Mushrooms” (YouTube it) made me insane with laughter, and few would name that one as even close to his all-time best.  I see that name on a comedy, I’m going.


Smigel’s absurd, random sense of humor is all over Zohan like the bridge club is (see the movie.)  I would be truly surprised if the central premise – Israeli super-agent leaves the Middle East for New York City to pursue his hairstyling ambitions and is hounded by his Palestinian archenemy – was not a Smigel invention.  I would be surprised if it was not Smigel who engineered this movie in part to demonstrate how funny hummus can truly be.  The movie is stuffed with jokes, very rarely runs on fumes, and stays admirably true to the risky (and severely weird) premise.


And frankly it doesn’t always happen this way, but Sandler’s the funniest guy in the movie.  He’s got a truly wild character to play, and he completely goes for it with absolute conviction. 


As the Phantom, the arch-enemy of the Zohan, John Turturro continues to be a strong example of a serious actor who can be great in comedies. 


As Zohan’s obligatory Palestinian love interest, Emmanuelle Chriqui is who I will be endorsing as the 2008 candidate for the position of The Great Equalizer.  [If you’re not interested in the rest of my review of this movie, please skip down the page to learn the definition of this pivotal textbook term.] 


Neither of those two feels like they’re in the movie nearly enough, in the best senses of the sentiment. 


On the flip side, Rob Schneider is in the movie much too much, as ever, but don’t worry, Mariah Carey is in the movie just enough.  She’s much funnier when she’s on Zohan’s T-shirt than when she appears in person.  But that’s expectable.


Hard to say how much the director Dennis Dugan brings to the party – Sandler productions generally have a house style that has remained pretty consistent.  But glancing over the filmography, Dugan has been in the director’s chair for a couple of the better Sandler movies, and this movie seems like a step forward, in that it has a wider-screen feel than usual.  Maybe part of that is director of photography Michael Barrett, who did a lot of TV procedurals but also Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a movie which the only way to avoid love for it is to not have seen it.  This movie shares with that one a colorful, inviting, and lively palette.  Comedies don’t have to be pretty, which is why most aren’t, but this one is.


As I glance over the reviews, I see a lot of attempts to get heavy-handed about the movie’s conception of the central idea.  Personally, I have no problem with a comedy that even half-heartedly suggests that violence and war, however seriously they may start out, are pointless to maintain, and that the oppressed everywhere should set aside their differences and team up against the blue-eyed racist devils.  For whatever it does or doesn’t say, I’m pretty welcoming of a world where a movie like this is allowed to exist.






The Great Equalizer


When I say “Emmanuelle Chriqui is who I will be endorsing as the 2008 candidate for the position of The Great Equalizer,” here’s what I mean:


The term refers to that one famous chick who all guys can more or less agree on.  Everybody has their individual tastes, sure.  But in every generation there comes a Great Equalizer, and when she arrives, so too does an accord between we testosterone-crazed maniacs who sadly, do debate such things.  Any guy who can’t agree that The Great Equalizer is really, really pretty, is either being a dipshit, a contrarian, or you know.


In the 1980s, I’m told that the Great Equalizer was Phoebe Cates, but I can’t say so with absolute authority, since that was before I liked girls.  In the 1990s, I promise you it was Alyssa Milano. 


Most scholars agree that Jessica Alba has owned the title for the better part of this decade, but if she should choose to abdicate the throne prematurely, as she seems to be prepared to do, then Emmanuelle Chriqui is a decent bet for her successor.  (Interesting how The Great Equalizer so often arrives in the form of a brunette.)