Legendary Israeli counter-terrorist The Zohan (Sandler) fakes his own death and heads to New York to pursue his dream of styling hair. But the only job he can find there is in a Palestinian salon, and the enemies he left behind - including his fearsome nemesis The Phantom (Turturro) - are soon on his neatly groomed tail.
Few would have pegged Steven Spielberg’s Munich as an inspiration for American comedy. And yet, following Knocked Up’s discussions on Spielberg’s portrayal of Jewish machismo - “If any of us are getting laid it’s because of Eric Bana” - Zohan transplants Munich’s character arc, charting the ennui of a MOSSAD agent, into an Adam Sandler comedy that plays the Middle East crisis for laughs.
The movie starts on a great lick, with Sandler’s ’80s-styled commando The Zohan on the hunt for his nemesis The Phantom (Turturro), performing physically impossible feats – catching bullets in his butt-cheeks, putting piranhas on his private parts - and flirting with Tel Aviv beauties with a nutty energy that recalls the likes of Top Secret! or Hot Shots!. Once the movie reaches New York, with The Zohan changing his name to Scrappy Coco (don’t ask) and finding work in a Palestinian hair salon, director Dugan can’t keep the strike rate constant, straining too hard with running gags about hummus, the Middle Eastern love of bargaining and our hero servicing old women in a gag stolen shamelessly from The Producers.
Yet for every dud, there is an equal amount of inspired lunacy: Sandler and his cronies playing keepy-uppy with a cat, Sandler regular Rob Schneider as a militant Palestinian taxi driver phoning a Hezbollah hotline (“For terrorist supplies, press one”). And in a moment that - shock - borders on the subtle, a Palestinian immigrant laments: “People hate us. They think we’re terrorists.” An Israeli immigrant echoes: “People hate us, too. They think we’re you.”
The last act, which sees the Israelis and Palestinians unite against a mean property developer (Michael Buffer) looking to take over the neighbourhood for nefarious ends, feels forced - wheeling in a Mariah Carey cameo is always a sign of desperation. And yet what pulls you through is a charming cheerfulness that staves off the spectre of bad taste, and Sandler’s eminent likability. Be it playing over-the-top Bondian heroics or wooing shop owner Darlia (Entourage’s Emmanuelle Chriqui), Sandler mixes sentiment and silliness into an engaging confection. Pity the rest of the movie can’t keep up.
A strange, mostly enjoyable mix of big political questions and crude comedy, Zohan overcomes its skeletal plotting and uneven gag ratio through Sandlers sheer commitment to nonsense.