You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is imbued with a spirit of anarchy that, in theory, appeals to me. In theory, I like its willingness to plunge headlong into the surreal and the absurd without apology or justification, its (PG-13) disdain for political correctness, and its tendency to squeeze every bit of juice out of every joke the writers come up with. And I appreciate — in theory — its desire to take on politics in the process, even if its thesis winds up laughably simplistic. Long story short, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is my kind of movie. In… well, you know.
The reason theory doesn’t translate into reality is that Zohan‘s comic anarchy isn’t inspired, ever. The movie is a barrage of jokes, many nonsensical, many more vulgar, a few funny, all stupid. It goes on for 112 interminable minutes, without a moment’s thought for pacing, entertainment value, or what parts of Sandler and his cronies’ on-screen goofing-around should perhaps not have been released onto more than three thousand screens. Some would say that this sort of blithe unconcern is the definition of “anarchy,” but breaking all the rules does not entail idiocy and limitless self-indulgence. The problem with Zohan is it’s dumb as a rock.
Despite my inexorable disillusionment with all things Sandler, I was at least a little optimistic before the film began, due largely to the batshit insanity of its premise: a supernaturally skilled Mossad agent fakes his death and moves to America to pursue his dream of becoming a hairstylist. And by the way, it was co-written by late night genius Robert Smigel and none other than Judd Apatow. At that point I was sold, but what I didn’t know (though I should have guessed) was that the premise would be treated not as a story, but as a concept for a Saturday Night Live sketch extended to two hours.
Now, that last criticism is a cliché — at least one review of every silly Hollywood comedy will call it a “feature-length SNL sketch.” But hear me out; in this case, it’s true. Take Zohan himself. As played by Sandler, he’s obviously insane: he’s ultra-sophisticated, highly trained Mossad operative who spends his spare time staring at a 21-year old Paul Mitchell magazine and dreaming of making “the whole world silky smooth.” He says that a lot, the part about making people “silky smooth.” He loves to dry-hump people and objects, and also loves disco, breaking into dance at completely random, inopportune moments. Sandler plays him with a ridiculous Israeli accent, indiscriminately mixing in Yiddish.
The movie is convinced that this is funny all on its own, and so is content to simply send Zohan roaming around New York City, having funny encounters. A semblance of a plot, involving Hezbollah wannabes (led, improbably, by Rob Schneider) who scheme to capture Zohan and turn him over to his nemesis, the Phantom (John Turturro), eventually develops, but occupies maybe 20 total minutes of running time. The rest is dedicated to: a) expounding on Zohan’s penchant for having sex with old women, including a humiliated Lainie Kazan, b) developing running jokes involving hummus (it’s good for everything) and Zohan’s mysteriously enormous crotch, and c) playing around with ethnic stereotypes. The latter is occasionally funny (the notion of an Israeli-owned electronics store called “Going Out of Business” is pretty clever) but more often juvenile; if the other parts are amusing, it’s only because they are so aggressively, unapologetically stupid. They draw a chuckle once, like they would in a sketch. Repeated ad nauseam, they made me want to throw my neighbor’s Coke at the screen.
Eventually there’s a ridiculous romantic subplot that defines “perfunctory,” and the admittedly interesting notion that white people are fanning the flames of Palestinian-Israeli anger, and that if it weren’t for us, they’d bond over how attractive Hillary Clinton is, and peace would reign. (What? Yes.) Like Sandler’s last, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Zohan tries to use vulgarity to defuse a hot-button issue, but unlike gay marriage, Sandler’s target here doesn’t call for that treatment. “Don’t be an asshole” is a perfectly valid response to homophobes, but “let’s all just get along” isn’t really any sort of solution to the Middle East crisis. And so the ending just seems smug.
Even if none of what I’ve discussed here repels you, consider that it unfolds over the course of almost two hours. That is obscene, and more offensive than anything in the film itself. No matter what you think about Zohan‘s humor or its message, in no universe should it have been longer than 85 minutes. 112 is punishment.