WHEN DID the everyman populism of Adam Sandler give way to pandering? In the films that most distinctly feature his sensibility, Sandler hasn’t shown much interest in exploring the darker social implications of his work, preferring instead to revel in the strident, willfully declasse aspects. A knotty combination of real person, comedic persona and industrial construct, Sandler -- and the spontaneity that has made him a sporadically engaging performer -- has never been easy to deconstruct or dismiss.
Sandler is an unlikely candidate to broker world peace, yet that is exactly the undercurrent of his latest film, the frustratingly uneven “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” a satire on Arab-Israeli conflict that produces laughs only in fits and starts.
In the film, Sandler plays the titular character not to be messed with, an Israeli commando who specialized in thwarting Palestinian terror plots. Weary of his life of international intrigue and constant danger, he moves to New York City to, wait for it . . . follow his dreams and become a hairdresser. Once there he is shocked to find Arabs and Israelis literally living on the same street in relative peace. Soon enough, however, true identities are revealed, rivalries reignited and lessons are learned. (Lesson 1: Everybody can bond over enmity toward greedy real estate developers.)
It is easy to think of the film as a reconfiguration of the joke in last summer’s hit “Knocked Up” about Eric Bana’s character in “Munich” making Jews for once seem tough. Which makes sense because “Zohan” was co-written by Sandler with his old friends Judd Apatow and Robert Smigel (who created the popular Triumph the Insult Comic Dog).
They’ve crafted a vehicle for two sides of Sandler -- the broad comedic character work of his earlier films like “Billy Madison” married with the baby steps toward thematic resonance and social relevance of his more recent output such as “Click” and “I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry.” So while way, way too much attention is given to the exaggerated bulge in Zohan’s crotch, surprisingly little is made of the film’s latent hairdresser/gay-panic gag, apart from Shelley Berman, a comedian of the alter-shul, cutely saying the Yiddish “faigeleh” (a lot). And as for the “message” of the movie, it’s predictably of the peace-and-brotherhood variety.
In hopes of solidifying the shaky ground on which the film stands, the cast is stuffed with recognizable faces in roles large and small, including Sandler stalwart Rob Schneider as well as Chris Rock, Mariah Carey, John Turturro, Kevin James, Dave Matthews, John McEnroe, fight announcer Michael Buffer, Charlotte Rae, Kevin Nealon and Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences President Sid Ganis.
One of the biggest surprises in “Zohan” is how easily the trio of Jewish writers poke fun at the Israeli characters as readily and zestily as the Arabs. The Israelis are disco-loving, money-haggling, hummus-eating horndogs, while the Arabs are largely just put upon that everyone else thinks they are terrorists. Except for the Arabs who actually are terrorists.
“Zohan’s” creative triumvirate looks like a dream team for the smart-stupid gags that underscore Sandler’s best moments. But they seem to have fallen prey to the same Sandler-ian contradiction as the co-writers of “Chuck and Larry,” Oscar winners Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, crafting something that is at once both brainier and dumber than one might expect it to be. Both films seem torn apart by the push-pull occurring within Sandler’s oeuvre, as his need to service his fan base comes against the comedian’s nascent maturity. Yet Sandler’s sense of humor has an ability to dull down sharp ideas with forced sentimentality. It also relies on grinding individual jokes into the ground through repetition.
Sandler’s use, once again, of anonymous journeyman director Dennis Dugan ensures that “Zohan” never truly takes flight. The action sequences are awkward and unengaging. Every time the film gets moving, it is yanked back into inert mush. There is a female lead, a thankless role previously filled by the likes of Jessica Biel and Kate Beckinsale. This time it’s Emmanuelle Chriqui (“Entourage”), who seems to have gotten the part based on her lovely decolletage and skin tone.
If this was to be unapologetically funny, likable in an un-ironic, non-guilty-pleasure way, “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” falls short. As a cutting comedic satire about the Arab-Israeli conflict and stereotypes, it misses more than it hits. As another run-of-the-mill Sandler movie, it is better than most. At this point it seems a little foolish to want, let alone expect, “more” from the guy. If he can’t be bothered to put more effort into his films, why should anybody else?
“You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.” MPAA rating: PG-13 for crude and sexual content throughout, language and nudity. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes. In wide release.