In typical Sandler fashion, he plays once again a supremely, superhumanly really gifted individual thrown into a new social situation he’s completely ignorant of, which he proceeds to completely change to his liking by sheer dent of his personality. Not being a comedian particularly known for his subtlety, he has naturally picked the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict as his backdrop, staring as Zohan Dvir, the greatest Mossad agent that’s ever lived who, fed up with his life of endless, effortless violence, fakes his own death and flees to America to do what he’s really always wanted to… be a professional hairdresser.
As comedy ideas go, it’s not a bad one. It’s not super original but it’s just absurd enough that it has the chance to be truly funny. Like most things, though, the idea is only as good as the execution, which is usually where Sandler’s films fall apart, and “Zohan” is no exception. The problem is, he’s never really gotten out of a sketch-writing frame of mind. His films seem to start of with an absurd character first, and then build everything out from there, which can work fine for a five minute sketch, but is a bit trickier to pull off for two hours. The result is a five minute sketch that runs out of gas about three minutes in… and then continues for another two hours.
It’s become something of a pandemic among the once funny comedians from that particularly era of “Saturday Night Live” that have made a successful transition to film, only to get bogged into the same rut of childish, banal vulgarity that’s supposed to be funny by being shocking, but isn’t either. Zohan’s completely unselfconscious willingness to have sex with any woman he’s around for any period of time, including his roommate’s mother and any of the old women that come into the beauty shop, is a prime example, as they run it into the ground. It’s pretty generally all around offensive, trying as hard as it can to reduce its characters to stereotypes while simultaneously trying not to be mean. The Palestinian characters are all sexually frustrated terrorists, or are connected to terrorists, and the Jewish characters are depicted as shysters who use hummus for everything, including brushing teeth and washing hair. It’s supposed to be so over the top it’s funny. Except that it’s not.
To be fair, it’s not doing that all the time. Sandler and his co-writer Robert Smigel (Judd Apatow is credited as a writer, but he reportedly never had much to do with it after a first draft) try to make a very broad point about the vicious circle nature of the fighting in Israel and how senseless it is trying to depict the characters it was horribly mocking as regular people trying to make a life for themselves in America, away from the fighting as Zohan finds himself working at a Palestinian salon, the only place that would hire him.
The biggest problem is Zohan himself. He’s completely infallible, which is a little funny at first as deals with impossible situations with ridiculous ease, but it just gets less and less funny as it goes on. It might have been funnier if it didn’t out the only thing he couldn’t do well was cut hair, but that’s probably too mean spirited for Sandler. The rest of the cast mostly returning members of Sandler’s unofficial supporting troupe (Kevin Nealon, Rob Schneider, etc.) does about as well, although when professional ring announcer Michael Buffer is cast as the villain, you start to wonder what exactly it was the director had in mind. The worst of the lot is probably John Turturro as Zohan’s arch-nemesis the phantom, in an overacting nightmare that makes his role in “Transformers” look like “Hamlet.”
I’ve certainly seen worse movies than “Zohan,” and I have to admit I did chuckle once or twice, particularly at a bit with a terrorist trying to explain the nuances of the Palestinian position while trying to kill Zohan, but it was definitely few enough times that I could count them on one hand. Mostly what it is, is crude and boring. Gutter humor can be done well, Judd Apatow is slowly making a career out of it, and I’ve certainly got nothing against it. But it’s got to be funny, and “Zohan” isn’t.
I know someone out there must like these things, because Sandler keeps getting the money to make what is turning out to be the same movie over and over and over again, but I must not be tuned into his comedy wavelength because they just don’t work for me. Still, I hesitate to call it the worst film of the year. Not in any year where Uwe Boll has two movies out.