If the thought of hummus-coated specs has you in stitches, you're likely to find "Zohan" a transformative experience. If not, then you're likely to regard it the same way I did (and those I shared an almost unbroken silence with in the auditorium): as a bloated, almost entirely humorless monument to Sandler's unassailable self-regard.
Strain and writerly exhaustion are evident in the story's cumbersome premise. Zohan (Sandler), endowed with the usual battery of superhero powers, is a crack Israeli agent. But he cherishes a dream his peers find shameful: cutting hair. More precisely, he wants to replicate the silky smooth haircuts in an old Paul Mitchell catalog whose pages he's lovingly turned for years.
He absconds to America, where the only job he can land is at a rundown salon run by a lovely Palestinian woman (Emmanuelle Chriqui). Soon the new hire has the place hopping, partly because of his instantly acquired hairdressing chops, and partly because he liberally showers sexual favors upon the old ladies who seem to be the shop's only patrons.
I laughed precisely once. Presented with a dreads wig in a black salon, a terrified Zohan throws it to the ground and stomps on it, convinced it's a strange beast. It's the only moment he shows any fear or acts like a klutz, and it's pretty funny. By contrast, his unflappable Jewish gigolo superhero hairdresser act is an overconceptualized drag.
"Wouldn't it be hilarious if a Mossad agent just wanted to be a hairdresser?" We'll never know if a tossed-off comment like that by one of the three credited writers (Judd Apatow, Robert Smigel of "Saturday Night Live" and Sandler himself) started the process that led to this dreary mess. But the movie sure feels like a laborious attempt to expand a one-liner into a screenplay.
"What if he had sex with all his clients, like Warren Beatty in A.,ªEoShampoo'?"
"Yeah, but instead of being knockouts, what if they were all really old?"
"Oh my God, that's so funny!"
A plot, of a kind, eventually asserts itself. It has something to do with an evil developer (Michael Buffer) who wants to flatten the boisterously multiethnic neighborhood where Zohan works and loves. A sterile mall is to rise on its ashes. Then there's Zohan's Palestinian nemesis, the Phantom (John Turturro, who seems to be having more fun than anyone else in the film). And a disgruntled taxi driver (Rob Schneider), who harbors a grudge against Zohan for an old affront involving a goat.
Still, even as the developer deploys a band of white supremacists to gin up discord between the Arabs and the Jews in the neighborhood, the movie drops everything to make room for a hummus joke or a celebrity cameo. John McEnroe appears as himself, although I cannot now recall on what pretext. I remember how Mariah Carey and George Takei (Sulu on "Star Trek") wander into the plot, but why it seemed like a good idea to introduce them remains a mystery.
In a perfunctory fit of lesson-drawing, the movie winds up by showing that Arabs and Jews can get along, united by their shared contempt for Trump-like doers, Aryan Nation types and gays. Like the rest of "You Don't Mess With the Zohan," whose title itself is lifted from a beloved line from "The Big Lebowski," even this movie's homophobia feels borrowed, lazy and redundant. In other words, "Zohan" has all the earmarks of yet another Sandler bonanza. (PG-13) 113 min.ÿ S