In 'Zohan,' the Messiah Complex Gets a Makeover

Adam Sandler i i

He's a looker: Zohan (Adam Sandler) can't do much about that powerful sense of attraction you're feeling. Tracy Bennett/Columbia Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Tracy Bennett/Columbia Pictures
Adam Sandler

He's a looker: Zohan (Adam Sandler) can't do much about that powerful sense of attraction you're feeling.

Tracy Bennett/Columbia Pictures

Last week on Fresh Air, I spoke of liking the film of Sex and the City— and I stand by that review, even if everywhere I look there are jerks impugning my manliness.

The magazine I write for ran an online item in which men were asked what they'd rather do than sit through the movie, and the answers ranged from eating someone else's booger to being mauled by Michael Vick's pit bulls.

Excuse me, but I happen to be confident enough in my heterosexual masculinity to enjoy seeing how the female half lives, loves, and wears fabulous clothes — and on my side, I have the Zohan.

That's the Zohan of You Don't Mess with the Zohan, Adam Sandler's Israeli Mossad super-warrior — master of hand-to-hand-to-elastic-foot combat and a babe magnet who can satisfy harems of hot chicks plus scores of eager ladies over 60. (He's serenely generous with his favors.)

But he's tired of war: He dreams of giving up fighting and becoming a hairdresser like his hero Paul Mitchell. He especially loves the pouffy, feathered look that was big around 1985.

During a battle royale with John Turturro's Palestinian super-terrorist, the Phantom, Zohan fakes his death and high-tails it to New York, where no one wants to give him a job styling hair. This is perhaps understandable: His tryout at a children's salon — involving a better-sit-still admonition complete with a mention of pooling blood — suggests a certain lack of finesse when it comes to the needs of the clientele.

You Don't Mess with the Zohan is metrosexual camp; it's all cartoony slapstick and racial caricatures and look-at-the-ta-tas-on-that-hot-babe reaction shots. That said, it was co-written by Sandler, Judd Apatow, and Triumph the Insult Dog's Robert Smigel, and it's often very funny. Turturro gives flabbergasting bird-warbles of rage, and even Rob Schneider has moments as a Palestinian cabbie who can't get past the Hezbollah headquarters' automated answering system.

But the movie is nowhere near the class of Sandler's last, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, which in its adolescent way was more powerfully in-your-face against homophobia than even Brokeback Mountain — something most critics missed, perhaps on account of there being other things in your face, like the 600-pound man cutting the cheese with Sandler's head wedged between his legs.

But even at Zohan's most juvenile, there's something mesmerizing about Sandler's messiah fantasies — ego-baths only a major movie star could give himself, like being a sex god, a biblical warrior, and a finicky hairdresser. He even bridges the gap between himself and the Palestinians who want to kill him.

He satirizes his own potency at the same time he peddles it — yet he never falls into the Jerry Lewis mode of naked self-infatuation. Something fogbound in his demeanor takes the edge off — a quality Paul Thomas Anderson used in Punch Drunk Love, in which Sandler played an emotionally overdefended child-man floating through the world in a lyrical bubble. He has a layer of irony under a layer of tenderness under a layer of irony — with a pool of anger that moves around like Jupiter's Great Red Spot.

Some performers become stars because we can read them instantly; others, like Sandler, because we never tire of trying to get a fix on them. Who is he really? Based on Zohan, he's the sort of man with whom I'd want to knock back shots, put firecrackers under some preening yuppie's chair — and, yes, go to Sex in the City.

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