Lasciate ogne speranza, voi chi’intrate. How did it come to this? At the height of his power in Hollywood in 1999, Adam Sandler founded his own production company as a way to continue making the movies he enjoys. Over the years his films have slowly morphed into a pariah on the landscape of big budget studio comedies, becoming thinly veiled excuses for lavish vacations. But do they truly represent the nadir in the career of one of comedy’s once-brightest stars? Are there any hidden or underrated gems? Is there such a thing as too few fart jokes? Will I retain any sense of sanity by the end of this? Join me and find out, as we venture to the Happy Valley.
It’s unfortunate for Adam Sandler that his big summer comedy of 2008 was sandwiched between two of the biggest blockbusters of the year. Only a month before You Don’t Mess With the Zohan‘s June 8 release, Robert Downey Jr. and Iron Man kicked off the MCU’s box office dominance, and one month later, Christopher Nolan released his Batman masterpiece, The Dark Knight. Even on its opening weekend, the film was denied the top spot at the box office, taking second place to Kung Fu Panda. Still, Sandler likely isn’t crying too hard, given the film’s $200 million gross. It does make me curious if the film could have had a bigger cultural footprint if just one of the aforementioned films were released at a different time.
Working from a script first drafted in 2000 but shelved after 9/11, the film combines the sensibilities of two of the most talented comedic writers of the 2000s in Judd Apatow and Robert Smigel. (Dennis Dugan, the director, is also credited as a co-screenwriter. No comment). Were it not for their influences, Zohan could easily be tossed off as another forgettable, borderline-offensive, self-indulgent comedy among Sandler’s oeuvre. But it’s the zany little touches written into the script that elevate this film just ever so slightly above the dumpster pile that is the rest of the Happy Madison canon.
Nearly every film we’ve covered so far has had slapstick elements — or at least attempted them — but the slapstick here almost manages to reach levels that you typically see in a Naked Gun or Airplane! movie. I’m no comedy writer, but for a surreal moment to have any comedic effect, it has to not only be unexpected but maintain at least some element of realism. Consider the scene where John Turturro’s character, Phantom, begins training to defeat Zohan (Sandler). He begins by cracking an egg into a glass, which we expect him to drink, as in the famous scene from Rocky. Except instead of an egg yolk, a baby chick falls into the glass and, without beating an eye, he proceeds to drink them as if nothing were out of the ordinary. Zohan is full of non-sequiturs and visual puns like this and they almost all land in spite of the film that surrounds them.
There’s plenty of dark comedy to be mined from the never-ending conflict between Israel and Palestine, but it certainly shouldn’t fall to Sandler and various other non-Middle Eastern actors to comment on it. I’m not saying white actors are exempt from telling any non-white stories or portraying non-white characters (though this is quickly veering into territory for which I’m not qualified to further comment). Thankfully, though, the screenwriters’ stereotypes at play never feel mean-spirited or hurtful, like what we saw in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry; instead, they’re just dumb and mostly harmless, like the usage of hummus for everything from toothpaste to a fire retardant.
Unfortunately, the larger plot at stake in the film is still a mess, no matter how many laughs it generates. The story falls into the same narrative standards seen all too often throughout this series, where Zohan dreams of becoming a hairstylist despite his family’s insistence that he pursue a more dignified (read: “manly”) profession. Along the way, he falls for Emmanuelle Chriqui’s Dalia and fights against a business mogul’s impending hostile takeover to convert the neighborhood into a shopping mall. Add in a subplot that features Zohan’s cultural upbringing and his conflicting experiences with the Palestinians across the street, and Zohan’s impending battle with the Phantom, plus whatever Nick Swardson is doing, and you have a film that makes every plot development feel important while still trying to feel zany and inconsequential. It’s not that the plot is hard to follow (far from it); it just feels like there’s some fat that could have been trimmed to make the comedic moments stand out more.
This is the 10th Sandler film in this series so far, and it’s hard to believe that Zohan contains a side of the actor that feels fresh. I’m not talking about the Sandler that views himself as a sex machine or a figure of impeccable moral standing; that last one should come as no surprise to anybody that’s been reading this column on a regular basis. Sandler has had bits of physical comedy in previous films but none like what’s on display here. Granted, most of his physical stunts were either done with the help of CGI effects or a body double — nearly all of the scenes of him dancing are filmed from behind, which surely isn’t a coincidence — but I found myself wishing he would attempt more physical humor throughout his films. Did the film and his performance change my mind in terms of my outlook for his career at large? Knowing which films are coming down the pike, it felt more like a bittersweet moment, like one of the last vestiges of a comedic talent whose career could have gone in a much funnier direction.
- “I’m Getting Paid How Much?!” Inexplicable Cameo Award: There’s a stunning number of unnecessary cameos to pick from here, including Dave Matthews as a Tea Party racist (no comment), but I’m picking Mariah Carey for this spot simply because it gives me an excuse to embed this clip.
- Just Go With It: The Happy Madison Promise. If I had any desire to watch this film again, I would do my best to keep track of the ratio of women who want to have sex with Sandler versus the ones that don’t.
- Fart Joke Counter: None. In such a screwball comedy, it honestly surprises me a little.
- The Walkout Test: Fail. The first few minutes feature a naked Sandler performing something with his butt that I’m incapable of accurately describing.
- NEXT TIME: It only took 21 films, but there’s finally a female-starring film! Anna Faris makes her triumphant return in The House Bunny.