[Screen It]

(2008) (Adam Sandler, Emmanuelle Chriqui) (PG-13)

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Comedy: An Israeli anti-terrorism commando fakes his own death so that he can travel to New York City and pursue his secret dream of being a hair stylist.
Anti-terrorism commando Zohan (ADAM SANDLER) is a legend among his people for his ability to catch the bad guys. Yet, he has a secret longing and that's to be a hair stylist like his idol, Paul Mitchell. Thus, while battling arch-rival Palestinian terrorist The Phantom (JOHN TURTURRO), Zohan fakes his own death and heads to New York City to start his new life. Unfortunately, he's laughed out of his idol's salon, and ends up staying with a man he's just met, Michael (NICK SWARDSON), who lives with his mom, Gail (LAINIE KAZAN). Much to Michael's disgust, the ladies man soon gets busy with her.

While trying to find a job styling hair, Zohan is recognized by Oori (IDO MOSSERI), an Israeli now working in an electronics store, and he suggests that Zohan head across the street to the small salon run by Dalia (EMMANUELLE CHRIQUI), a Palestinian who's tired of the long-standing conflict between her people and Israeli. Not wanting to be identified, Zohan lies that he's Scrappy Coco from Australia and takes a job sweeping up in the salon.

Yet, he soon proves his worth, and quickly overshadows stylist Claude (ALEC MAPA), in satisfying the mostly middle-aged and older female clientele, not only with the hair cuts, but also by making them feel sexy and attractive, especially with randy post-cut rendezvous in the supply closet. He's soon a hit, but his falling for Dalia eventually stymies his lovemaking abilities with others.

But that's the least of his worries as Arab cab driver Salim (ROB SCHNEIDER) recognizes Zohan and reports that to The Phantom who's also in the city now running a popular restaurant. With developer Walbridge (MICHAEL BUFFER) trying to incite ethnic hatred between the Jews and Arabs on the street (so that he can raze their buildings and open a mall), Zohan must deal with all of that as he tries to pursue his new life of styling hair.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
Movies have a way of influencing all sorts of things, from fashion that's copied, music that becomes popular, and dialogue that becomes common catch-phrases repeated ad nauseam. But what they most affect are studios and filmmakers who, consciously or not, adopt some or a lot of elements from past flicks into their latest offerings.

That's usually on a one-to-one basis, but in the case of "You Don't Mess With the Zohan," it appears two previous pics have directly influenced it (not counting the star's previous outings). The most obvious, not to mention recent, is obviously "Borat," the Sacha Baron Cohen flick about a Kazakhstani "reporter" who comes to the U.S. and generates laughs by misunderstanding and being misunderstood by the locals. In a very raunchy and offensive style, the film examined racism, misogyny, and other social ills (much like the Archie Bunker character decades earlier in TV's "All in the Family").

The second and more surprising influence is Spike Lee's brilliant and incendiary "Do the Right Thing" from back in 1989. It was about racial and ethnic tension between blacks and Italians coming to a boil -- step-in-step with the summer temps -- in a New York neighborhood. And one of its stars was a relatively unknown performer by the name of John Turturro playing one of the Italian pizzeria guys whose attitude helps stoke the strife.

Turturro also appears here in "Zohan," but this time he's playing a Palestinian terrorist who's public enemy number one for our titular Israeli anti-terrorism commando who's played by, of all people, Adam Sandler. But Zohan has a secret desire and that's to cut hair (his idol being Paul Mitchell), so he fakes his death, and secretly immigrates to the Big Apple where he tries to get work in a salon run by a Palestinian owner (Emmanuelle Chriqui) on a neighborhood street that's the dividing line between Arab and Jewish business.

If not for the "commando wants to be a hair stylist" angle, this might sound like serious fair, especially since Sandler of late has been dipping his dramatic toes outside the straight comedy pool. Yet, when one sees that the actor penned the screenplay with Robert Smigel (of "Triumph the Insult Comic Dog" fame) and Judd Apatow (the man fully or partially behind hits such as "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Knocked Up" and such), any such fleeting thoughts of a smart or insightful comedy are quickly flushed down the cinematic loo.

What's left is a crass, wildly uneven, and surprisingly unfunny comedy that scrapes the bottom of the barrel of "lowest common denominator" with its broad stereotypes and caricatures, bad direction (courtesy of Dennis Dugan who's directed Sandler several times before, most recently in last year's "I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry"), and a plot that would have worked best, if at all, as a 3 or so minute skit on "Saturday Night Live."

In full-length mode (shockingly running nearly two hours long), it quickly wears out its welcome, with Sandler's performance only further showing how brilliant Cohen was in "Borat." Not surprisingly, while the latter essentially disappeared into that unique role, one always senses Sandler doing a weak impersonation, with a strained accent and mannerisms that feel more like constructs ("and then he does this, and then he says that") rather than something naturally flowing from the creation.

Throw in lame running gags about hummus being used in all sorts of non-traditional ways (which feels ripped off from the similar Windex jokes in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding"), a live cat being used in hacky-sack several times (for no apparent reason beyond the visual joke), and Sandler's character repeatedly getting it on with a bunch of middle-aged to older ladies (obviously designed to gross out the adolescent aged or minded demographic this thing's targeted for), and the result is a long sit.

One could surmise that the Apatow contribution -- beyond the abundant raunchy material and repeated views of Sandler's tush -- is the "let's all get along" sentiment eventually shared by the mortal ethnic enemies (with white corporate America conveniently usurping the role as the villain). Considering the current and long-standing strife in the real world between these parties, trying to mine jokes from that is a tough sell. And just as that comedy feels forced and contrived, so does the supposed warmth at the end where all of the offensive stereotypes and such that preceded that are supposed to be wiped clean by the feel good conclusion.

Aside from a random chuckle or two stemming from the dialogue, the supporting performers can't do anything with the material or their characters. That's particularly true for Rob Schneider who gets a far meatier role than his usual "you can do it" Sandler comedy cameo, but offers nothing while taking up far too much screen time. And the romance subplot between Sandler and Chriqui's character is, not surprisingly, as flat as most of the comedic attempts.

After sitting through this, all I can say is that if you want to see a funny and raunchy pic about a "fish out of water" foreign character set loose in America, you should "do the right thing" and seek out Cohen's comedy. "You Don't Mess With the Zohan" rates as a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed May 27, 2008 / Posted June 6, 2008

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