What's going on? First, Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay tweaked the War on Terror, and now You Don't Mess With the Zohan takes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Who knew that mainstream comedies could be so geopolitical? And who ever expected Adam Sandler to lead the way? As Zohan Dvir, an Israeli commando whose secret desire is to cut and style hair, Sandler is like a weird mix of Warren Beatty in Shampoo, Mike Myers in Austin Powers, Eric Bana in Munich, Po in Kung-Fu Panda and...who am I leaving out, oh yeah, Borat. The accent alone would send a chill up the spine of your average Hezbollah terrorist. But Zohan also has some mad skillz. You've heard of one-hand push-ups? He does no-hands push-ups. And he could poke your eye out with his pelvic pumps.
In short, he's Super Jew, the ass-kicking score-settler that God's Chosen People have often dreamed about. But he wants out, and after faking his own death he arrives in Manhattan with a new name, a new do and what he hoped would be a new profession. Unfortunately, he's caught in a time warp; everything he knows about hair he learned from an '80s style guide. His clothes, too, are a throwback to the silky-smooth era of Saturday Night Fever, not to mention Solid Gold. Sandler's been given so much to work with here that you can feel him reveling in the role; there's none of that laziness that often creeps into his performances. The writers - Saturday Night Live stalwart Robert Smigel, the ubiquitous Judd Apatow and Sandler himself - also seem to have been inspired by the opportunity to wallow in these particular ethnic stereotypes. The eternal love for hummus, for instance.
People dip their chocolate bars in it, brush their teeth with it, put out fires with it. As redundant as that sounds, comedy-wise, it's always good for a laugh. And the movie, for all its grade-school humor, never loses sight of its overall mission: to bring a little levity to a situation that nobody's been smiling about for, oh, 60 years. Toward that end, director Dennis Dugan, who's been competent at best in his other outings with Sandler, does a great job of physicalizing the humor, as when Zohan and his arch-nemesis, the Phantom (John Turturro), paddle-ball a grenade back and forth. Or when Zohan ties people in knots, like human pretzels.
In that great melting-pot stew called New York, our hero finds a place where Arabs and Israelis can at least work on resolving their differences. Should they continue to fail, the joke's on us.