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Sandler's shtick sticks in 'Zohan'

Posted: Thursday, June 05, 2008

There's a spirit of avant-garde goofiness to the new Adam Sandler movie that sets it apart from his usual sophomoric work. Sprung from the fertile comic imaginations of Robert Smigel ("Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog") and Judd Apatow (the grand vizier of film comedy), it exists in a slap-happy parallel universe. In "You Don't Mess with the Zohan," Israeli commandos dream of styling mousse and blow driers, hummus is a dip served with eyeglasses, and Mariah Carey asks terrorists to explain Bluetooth technology.

Courtesy Of Happy Madison
Courtesy Of Happy Madison

Zohan is a top Israeli counterspy who bops down the boulevard like Borat imitating a disco-era Travolta snapping Chuck Norris moves. He is the master of almost any situation, from a hacky sack challenge to outswimming a jihadist on a jet ski. He leaps across rooftops with an agility that would make Spider-Man weep, and he never overcooks grilled fish. He is also a sex god (Sandler, buffed to perfection, sports a codpiece the size of a cantaloupe). His greatest drawback is his consonant-gargling accent, which sounds like a collection of Scrabble tiles swirled in a blender.

But Zohan is unfulfilled. He dreams of leaving the endless conflict of the Middle East for a peaceful life as a New York hairdresser. While pursuing the extra-dastardly-evil terrorist known as The Phantom (John Turturro), he fakes his own death, stows away on a trans-Atlantic jet and wrangles an entry-level job at a rundown salon, his new mission in life to make the world "silky smooth." He's great with a clipper and comb, but Zohan's real appeal is the additional services he gives his elderly clients in the stockroom love pad.

As in last year's "I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry," homosexual anxiety underpins many of the film's jokes. This time it's turned inside out: Rather than a red-blooded firefighter pretending to be gay, Sandler's now a lady-killer stud in a gay man's profession. Zohan is a macho dynamo: He's so exuberantly proud of his body that he can't help doing a bump and grind with every rinse and fluff, and it must be said that Sandler's campy body language is hilarious.

Naturally, the Happy Madison films stock company is on hand with extended cameos. Rob Schneider pops up as an Arab taxi driver who recognizes Zohan and endangers his new life, Kevin Nealon appears as a timid neighborhood watch captain, and Nick Swardson plays a nerd who's appalled by Zohan's nonstop lovemaking with his mommie dearest (Lanie Kazan). John McEnroe, George Takai and Bruce Vilanch show up just for the hell of it.

Full marks go to longtime Sandler collaborator Dennis Dugan (of "Chuck & Larry" and "The Benchwarmers"), whose direction has never been better. The film has a disorienting, daffy feel, swinging easily between the comic romance of Zohan and the pretty Palestinian owner of his salon (Emmanuelle Chriqui), and farcical action scenes that demolish half of Brooklyn. The dialogue is full of left-field weirdness: When Zohan explains his accent by insisting he's Australian, someone comments that it's much nicer there since they ended apartheid.

And for fans of physical humor, Sandler performs impossible deeds of athletic prowess with the aid of computer animation and prosthetic feet. (Don't ask.) Best of all, his character's accent keeps Sandler from drifting into the adenoidal whine that made many of his characters physically painful to listen to.

"Zohan" tries for a message of social relevance with a nod to America as the land of multicultural coexistence, but its real value is in air-fluffing our cares away for a couple of hours.



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