You Don't Mess with the Zohan Chizfilm Jewish Movie Reviews
March 15, 2010

“You Don’t Mess with the Zohan”: A Comedic Response to Israeli Counterterrorism

by Jonathan Chisdes

Not long ago, I examined two films that looked at the issue of terrorism in Israel from two very different points of view. Now it’s time to highlight a movie that explores this same issue from an even more radically different view—that of comedy.

Two years ago, at approximately the same time “Lemon Tree” was playing in Israel, the Jewish-American comedian Adam Sandler (“Punch-Drunk Love” and “Eight Crazy Nights”) released “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.” I figured if it was okay for Roberto Benigni to find humor in the Holocaust, than there should be no problem with Adam Sandler finding humor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

His over-the-top comedy tells the story of a super-human Israeli Mossad agent code-named The Zohan (Sandler) who can leap from building to building like Spider-Man, can catch bullets in his teeth like Superman, and can out-swim a jet-ski like, um, well, can Aquaman do that? Never mind. You get the point. His arch enemy is the Palestinian terrorist called The Phantom (John Turturro) who has different super powers.

But The Zohan has tired of the constant Middle Eastern conflict, so he fakes his own death, assumes a new identity, and starts a new life in New York where he hopes to pursue an old, secret dream of becoming a hairdresser. His plans are complicated by the fact that the only hair salon that will hire him is run by a Palestinian woman (Emmanuelle Chriqui), so he must get over his prejudice. Then he is further tested when a Palestinian cab driver (Rob Schneider) recognizes him and alerts The Phantom to his new identity in America.

Sandler’s comedy is quite juvenile, filled with sight-gags, sex jokes, silly stunts, and a predictable plot. But let’s be real: anyone who complains that an Adam Sandler / Rob Schneider movie is juvenile might as well complain that razors are sharp. On the other hand, if you complain that a John Turturro movie is juvenile, well, maybe you have a point.

I could tear this movie apart, but to what avail? I realize that films like “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan” aren’t made to impress film critics like me; they’re made to make 14-year-old boys laugh. And if, somewhere along the way, a 14-year-old boy learns a little something about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that he didn’t know before, than that’s probably a good thing.

And it does, after all, ask at least one important question that the two other films I reviewed didn’t ask: if Israelis and Palestinians can get away from the root of their problems and go live in a place like America, will they be able to set aside their differences? Given that this is a happy comedy, you can probably figure out that this film will answer that question in a simplistic way. Still, it’s the kind of serious question that most movies in this silly genre usually shy away from.

In some ways, “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan” is a cute little movie, and I admit—with slight embarrassment—that I did laugh (or at least chuckled) at many of the jokes. And it was kind of fun recognizing all the famous celebrities who popped up in cameos (everyone from Kevin Nealon to John McEnroe, from Chris Rock to Dave Matthews, from Mariah Carey to George Takei, showed up for a line or two).

Still, there are a number of things that did bother me. And I’m not talking about the sexual prowess jokes or the idiotic stereotypes, which are a standard of the genre. A scene where a cat is kicked around like a ball really gave me the shivers (seriously, there just is no humor in animal abuse, even knowing that it was a special effect). In another scene, the filmmakers used the Palestinian flag to represent a Lebanese sports team (a somewhat serious error). And I was also a bit concerned that so many of the plot elements appeared to be stolen from the 2006 Academy Award winning short “West Bank Story” which, in many ways, is a much better film.

But at least, if nothing else, I appreciate the attempts of American humorists to address serious issues like the terrorism faced by the Middle East. It makes an interesting counterpoint to more serious films like “Operation Thunderbolt” and “Lemon Tree.” And it brings an important issue to an audience that might otherwise be indifferent to international conflict.

Critics like me probably won’t enjoy this movie very much; but if you’re a 14-year-old boy, you’ll have a ball.