03 July 2018

Let's Talk Zohan

This post is coming out of left field but it's been weighing on me quite a bit for the last ten years.

You Don't Mess With the Zohan (2008).

Yeah, that Adam Sandler Israeli Counterterrorist / Hairdresser film. If you'll indulge me and have nothing better to do while celebrating America this week, let's talk about this film, its legacy, and one of the strangest fictional realities ever.

I saw this in theaters on June 6th, 2008. I really really hated it. At the time it seemed like it was truly Sandler burning his last bridge. As a child of the 80s, I was obviously a big fan of the artist. To this day, Billy Madison (1995) remains an insane nostalgia trip because every single kid in the third-grade class looks exactly like the kids in my elementary school. These mid-90s movies excelled on a level of absurd surrealism, often venturing into some pretty dark comedy treated with excess glee. They're obviously juvenile, but exhibit a lot of heart as well.

Also somehow Sandler got ripped for this
Sandler tried his hand at a few other genres at this time, and it's almost easy to forget how great he was in a supporting role in Airheads (1994) or his budding action career with Bulletproof (1996). Keep that in the back of your mind, because some of his future roles, including Zohan seem to be aching to get back to that action ideal. I recall The Waterboy (1998) being the first significant step over the line. As Sandler became more powerful and less people told him "No, Adam, this is retarded," he ironically acted more and more retarded. The Waterboy is outrageous and obnoxious in every way.

He scaled back a little with Big Daddy (1999), which is nutty, but grounded, then went full retard again with Little Nicky (2000), which was really too extreme for most people and arguably the definitive film that turned many off the juvenile insanity of the Adam Sandler brand. You can see his reaction in 2002 where he dropped his first serious acting attempt with Punch-Drunk Love, a more Big Daddy-style grounded comedy with Mr. Deeds, and a step back from the direct spotlight with the animated Eight Crazy Nights. These are all trying different things, but you see that oscillation between the really insane, in-your-face reality of Waterboy / Little Nicky style comedies and the more grounded Big Daddy / Mr. Deeds comedies.

For the rest of the 2000s this is really apparent. Anger Management (2003) and 50 First Dates (2004) are based mostly in our reality where Sandler is at least a believable human character. The Longest Yard (2005) is more an ensemble comedy that definitely lays ground rules with significant consequences and although ostensibly the protagonist, Sandler's Paul Crewe is a fairly passive character, allowing every zany inmate around him to get the most laughs. I'll be the first to admit I still have never watched I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007) because why would you, ever? But my impression is that it fits more in that grounded vein, even as it tries to find a way to show compassion towards homosexuals in the least compassionate way possible.

I will give Chuck and Larry some credit, though, for missing the mark so hard that films had a tougher time from then on explicitly exploiting gay panic for laughs. There are still instances everywhere, of course, but there is a cultural attitude shift of that being more unfortunate and cringe-worthy than in some pretty rough 90s, mid-2000s films, and well, movies from every other time period.

As we're leading up to Zohan we kind of see this diversification of critical applause. That's a nice way of saying some of these movies are great, but many begin some significant misfires. And critics aren't the best word, but more like, those idiot 90s Sandler fans (me) start to realize, "Hey....this sucks." No where is this more apparent with Click (2006). I was excited for this because it looked really goofy, but it fails in that grounded vs. outrageous reality discussion. It wants to be both. On the surface it's a rational family comedy / drama (it definitely contains some of the heaviest Sandler drama ever, and he followed it up with Reign Over Me [2007], which no one saw, it's okay), but more than any other Sandler film it explicitly plays with reality, to Sandler's character's whim. Damn this movie is depressing and heart-wrenching. It's a goofy reality-shifting comedy! How did this happen?!

Finally, Zohan. I think I still had Click and Chuck and Larry in my mouth (never a good taste), and a this point it was kind of like, "Well, he has enough Billy Madison goodwill for me to give him ONE more chance, but I expect this to suck." And yeah, it was rough. Zohan always felt like one bizarre inside joke. It was an examination of the Israeli - Palestinian Conflict (clearly timeless fodder for comedy), with a mix of Middle-Eastern electronics sales, hummus, and hacky sack jokes? It was as if it was using all these stereotypes that no one really knew were stereotypes. Disco disco fizzy bubbler? And it's kind of like "...okay, we'll roll with it."

This is of course, because all that's true. Zohan is essentially based on an inside joke between Sandler and Robert Smigel first conceived as the Sabra Shopping Network on SNL. It all makes you feel really lost when watching for the first time. Everything and every stance is assumed and the characters are so within their own world with little room to invite in any kind of audience surrogate. In the past ten years of reflection, though...I've realized this is kind of brilliant.

See, there's no straight man here. Every single character is completely insane. Maybe Emmanuelle Chriqui. But that's it. Sandler actually plays a well-developed, calm, and reasonable character as opposed to his normal off-the-wall man screaming man child. Where it gets its kicks, though, is what the Zohan is capable of. He's basically an unstoppable superhero whose powers are never explained besides him being Israeli and that being awesome. That alone is a kind of wild idea - there really aren't many other cool Jews on screen that don't descend into stereotypes.

Again, there are stereotypes here, but it's like, putting hummus in coffee and loving Mariah Carey. Are these things? They come off more as running jokes than anything else in this movie. This movie probably wasn't the best avenue for a frank discussion of the Middle-Eastern struggle in America, the casual relationship between terrorists and Hezbollah, and the price of thousands of years of conflict and violence. Again, easy comedy fodder. The film goes out of its way towards humanizing both Israeli and Palestinian characters, and I'd say did a really nice job of casting some actors of genuine Middle-Eastern descent except for a ridiculous amount of whitewashing. Rob Schneider in brownface is particularly cringe-worthy, but John Turturro, Smigel, and Sandler himself are all pretty rough. There is some excuse for the Israelis, since there is a contingent of white Jews who have returned to the country, but it's kind of a Jack Black Nacho Libre (2006) thing, where it's simply a weak excuse to give brown roles to white actors.

It's all part of this film trying to be a lot of different things. The Israelis and Palestinians do find some way to co-exist in America, and there are cogent arguments for both sides of the conflict. It's all surrounded by a bizarre reality of hummus hoses, stopping bullets with your teeth, and making a severed hand come to life and stab a terrorist in the back. To some extent it might be saying that true Peace in the Middle-East is as much a fantasy as John Turturro running around upside-down on the ceiling.

More importantly, though, as I reflect, unlike Click or even The Waterboy and Little Nicky, the outrageous reality comes across pretty smooth. It tends to stick to its own fairly bent rules, and like I mentioned, that lived-in quality comes across pretty clear. Besides Chriqui, we briefly get Nick Swardson as our surrogate before he cries and screams like a baby drinking milk and is ejected from the club. There's also the unabashed old lady-fucking, which is simultaneously played for gross laughs, but also somehow really genuine. It works because Zohan is never banging these old broads to get a laugh or a rise out of his friends. He bangs them because he truly believes they are beautiful and deserve the gift of his banging. That's borderine toxic masculinity (magic man dick solving all of women's problems), but the intent is consistently genuine and there's even moments of sincere vulnerability when he realizes he's in love with Chriqui.

It's also a wonder of writing that the physically invulnerable Zohan still has many emotional flaws and weaknesses. It's like a Superman story where Superman doesn't want to be Superman. That jaded emotional drainage and fear of his true love (cutting hair) being embarrassing or (to go back to the perils of toxic masculinity) feminine and thus demoting his social stature among his peers, family, and enemies is all pretty potent. It's actually a remarkably simple idea, albeit one that would seem to exist in direct confrontation with all the Middle-Eastern conflict and American immigrant experience ideas, but it's a kind of deeper surrealness that makes it work.

It was a Black Wasp!
This is best shown with the villains, who range from casually racist to explicitly racist, which in 2018 seem like precursors to the neo-Nazi movement that's emerged more on the surface of American politics. For some reason Dave Matthews is the head Nazi. I don't know. It's one of the first instances of now-common Sandler movie stunt casting that also includes Michael Buffer as Walbridge, an insane real estate developer who loves screaming his own name at board meetings and talking about how his girlfriend as the perfect Tits to Ass ratio. Watching this in 2018 also really really feels like Walbridge = Trump. I mean...it really could just be Trump. Casual Nazi ties, obsession with the superficial, a ruthless businessman with no love for immigrants. Walbridge is fucking Trump, people. It's way to easy to picture Trump screaming about "THE RATIO!" as he's carted off to jail, as if that's what he's more obsessed about. Except in real life, not the fantasy of Zohan, villains like Trump won't ever be arrested.

This stunt casting would peak with That's My Boy (2012), which blended the grounded and insane realities of Sandler again. That's a film that gleefully revels in its offensiveness, but also has the heart of an absurdly impossible father-son relationship. Since Zohan Sandler has definitively gone downhill. Despite parodying and critiquing his own career with Funny People (2009), somehow the premises of his films have gotten worse. There's a few categories Sandler films now fall into. You have these big ensemble comedies like the Grown-Ups movies and Pixels (2015), more adult-oriented romantic comedies like Just Go With It (2011) and Blended (2014), off the wall traditional Sandler comedies like Jack and Jill (2011) that eventually retreated to Netflix, the Hotel Transylvania series, and finally, a continued attempt at taking more serious roles like The Cobbler (2014) and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017). He's actually pretty great in the latter.

None of these films struck the balance of Zohan, or hit the pointed global political commentary. I give the film some credit for attempting to address such a serious issue in such an obscenely goofy way. It's a really bold film that at least tries to humanize its insane characters that totally exists in its own flexible reality that's continuously surprising, adventures, and in the end pretty fun. There are some damn awful racial considerations looking back ten years on, but looking back it's also weird to think of it as a high mark. Is it the last great Sandler film that's a straight solo comedy? Maybe the only great Sandler comedy of the past twenty years? These are all questions up for debate.

What do you think of the Zohan? It's got Billy Madison guts.

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