HOLLYWOOD — For all its perceived shock value, all the concern that a comedy about conflict in the Middle East would offend just about everyone imaginable, “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” is really rather conventional and familiar.
At its core, it’s just “Romeo and Juliet,” wrapped in Adam Sandler’s trademark raunchy humor.
Sandler co-produced, co-wrote the script and stars as the titular character, a famous Israeli commando who fakes his own death to escape to the United States and pursue his lifelong dream of becoming a hairdresser. He’s a superhuman trained killer but all he wants to do is make people “silky smooth,” one of many lines and jokes that get repeated ad nauseam in Dennis Dugan’s overlong movie, which pushes two hours.
Zohan would have made a perfectly fine character in a recurring “Saturday Night Live” sketch; you could imagine Sandler slipping into him when he got tired of playing Opera Man. As the focus of a full-length film, though, it’s a serious stretch.
Once he lands in New York, Zohan wows his older female customers with his sexual prowess (and the hairstyles he copies from his beloved 1987 Paul Mitchell book) but he also finds he’s fallen for his boss, Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui), a sassy salon owner who happens to be Palestinian.
He also must elude a group of Arabs, led by cab driver Salim (old “SNL” buddy Rob Schneider), who want to report Zohan’s existence to the revered Palestinian terrorist “The Phantom” (John Turturro) who thought he’d killed him. He gets some help in that arena from a naive bike messenger (Nick Swardson) and his amorous mother (Lainie Kazan in a typically robust performance) who befriend him without knowing his true identity. They think he’s an Australian-Tibetan immigrant, naturally.
Sandler collaborated on the screenplay with longtime friends and comedy titans Robert Smigel and Judd Apatow, so it features some smarter and more grown-up laughs than you would expect from a typical Happy Madison Production. (Dugan did previously direct Sandler in “Happy Gilmore,” “Big Daddy” and “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry,” though, so the lowest-common-denominator elements are right in his wheel house.)
But “Zohan” also addresses far more complex issues than those movies did. Several characters on both sides speak with frustration and sadness about how they wish the fighting would end; Zohan tells his parents he wants to leave the army and become a stylist because, “I like hair. It’s pleasant, it’s peaceful. No one gets hurt.” With its messages of acceptance and reconciliation, the film’s heart is certainly in the right place.
And with cameos from Mariah Carey, Charlotte Rae, George Takei, Dave Matthews and John McEnroe, it’s got to feature the most random cross-section of humanity since “Zoolander.”
Mostly, though, it’s just plain silly, which is probably what you’re looking for when you show up at the multiplex for one of Sandler’s summer comedies. After an amusing set up on the beach in Israel, it settles into a mushy middle with broad gags that play out over and over.
Zohan turns people into pretzels when they cross him, for example, and likes to dip everything in hummus. He likes to show off his naked backside, the crack of which he’s quite skilled at catching things in — such as fish.
Sandler’s bod is pretty impressive. He worked out with a Navy SEAL for four months and it shows, even when he’s dressed in Zohan’s usual ridiculous ensemble of a Mariah Carey tank top and Daisy Duke shorts. We’ve never had much reason to think of him as a sex symbol — or a commentator on global issues, for that matter — but in “Zohan,” he almost transforms himself into both at the same time. Almost.
“You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” a Columbia Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content throughout, language and nudity. Running time: 113 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.