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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Don’t Mess with His Hair (You Don't Mess With the Zohan)

Adam Sandler’s cutting comedy

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When a trained-to-kill Israeli commando switches professions and becomes a Manhattanhairdresser, a fish-out-of-water comedy is sure to follow. And when this Israeli hairdresser falls in love with the Palestinian woman who owns the salon, you can bet your last shekel that a socio-political message is struggling to be heard.

In Adam Sandler’s comedy You Don’t Mess With theZohan, Sandler plays a sex stud from a crack special forces squad who keeps his dream concealed: he wants to style hair in the flashy salons of the Big Apple. After faking his own death during a raid on Lebanon, he smuggles himself into NYC, arriving with a slight dislocation in time. Zohan is stuck in the days of disco, but his colorful shirts open to the navel and worn with chains only serves to reinforce his sex appeal—especially among matronly salon customers who might have done the hustle 30 years ago.

The socio-political message is embedded in Zohan’s desire to do something other than kill his enemies. Although he’s good at killing, he’s tired of all the fighting and just wants to lead a normal life in a New York salon. His gorgeous Palestinian boss, Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui), is likewise sick of tribal hatred. The sexually insatiable Zohan and his closest companion, his penis, are beginning to feel they should settle down with one woman to love. And maybe the three of them—Dalia, Zohan and his member—will fend off the community-busting advances of the predatory, soulless developers who go around the neighborhood in bad suits and cell phones jacked into their ears.

All of this is commendable and could be hilariously funny, except that it’s not. Sandler shows a talent for humorously mimicking the speech of Israelis but relies on his usual grade school joke book for material. There is a moment or two of hilarity, especially when Zohan foot slaps an abusive Wall Street investor, and even a few slivers of drollery when Zohan studies his Small Talk Guide forHairdressers book in off hours.

Mostly, it’s the usual Sandler spree of ribaldry and tasteless visual gags—puking, playing soccer with a cat and, yes, lots of routines around penises and what they are capable of.

The socio-political message? Sure, the fighting has to stop. But in You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, Arab and Israeli cultures and people are caricatured in such shallow, offensive (and yes, once or twice humorous) ways that the stakes in conflict resolution are close to zero. Since the humanity of most characters is in doubt, why not let them fight? In that case there could be a sequel next summer in which Sandler trades his scissors for an Uzi and rejoins the struggle in The Return of the Zohan.