We all have dreams. Some of us dreamed of being fighter pilots or ballerinas or world leaders. I always dreamed of being an NFL wide receiver—a fantasy that faded due to my complete lack of talent and unseemly affection for bacon cheeseburgers.
The Zohan has a dream, too. He wants to be a hairdresser.
Oh, some would say he has a pretty glamorous gig already. He’s an Israeli counterterrorist—a man so skilled and lethal as to make James Bond look like a tax accountant. He kicks through walls, catches bullets with his nostrils and outraces jet skis with a svelte-yet-powerful butterfly stroke. “You’re like Rembrandt with a grenade,” his father exclaims.
But this is no consolation to The Zohan who, in his private moments, leafs through an ancient Paul Mitchell style book with an air of melancholy. “I just want to make people silky smooth!” he wails.
So, like a character from a truly demented Horatio Alger story, The Zohan fakes his own death and smuggles himself to the Land of Opportunity via an airplane baggage compartment, hoping to make his own styling dreams come true. No longer is he The Zohan, Israel’s most feared weapon. He’s given himself a new do (a New Wave cut circa 1985), a new determination and a new identity: Scrappy Coco, a name pilfered from a couple of dogs with whom he traveled.
Alas, New York City at first gives The Zo—I mean Scrappy—the cold shoulder. One beauty shop turns him down after he literally beats a dreadlocked wig into submission. Another shows him the door when he scares the children. “When I was your age I already killed seven men,” he says to one 6-year-old customer. Finally, he finds his niche at a Palestinian parlor, wooing the shop’s elderly female clientele with his nifty retro hairstyles, flirty ways and the “special favors” that he doles out in the back room.
Ah, yes, it’s the prototypical American dream fulfilled: Israeli superspy finds happiness as a haircutting gigolo. One can only hope that his enemies don’t discover he’s still alive … and, if they do, they’ll be willing to forgive all for a shampoo, style and an extra bottle of mousse.
The Zohan is hardly Sunday school material. But it does teach tidbits of positivity:
Lesson 1) It’s OK to follow your dreams, even if they strike some folks as a little silly. The Zohan has goals and he’s willing to work hard to achieve those goals.
Lesson 2) Can’t we all just get along? The Zohan is, frankly, sick of all the tensions taking place in his home country. His growing affection for Dalia, the Palestinian owner of the beauty shop, is intended to show audiences that, with a little understanding, peace and even love between people is possible. “Here in America, we’re all the same!” one character says. And, while that’s not exactly true, we get the point.
[A spoiler warning duly issued for lessons 3 and 4.]
Lesson 3) Violence doesn’t solve anything. The Zohan faces off against his arch enemy, The Phantom, as the film comes to a close. But it’s only to make a statement about passive resistance, as The Zohan suddenly decides not to fight back. “This is not fun for anybody,” The Phantom moans after smacking The Zohan across the face with a pipe.
Lesson 4) Monogamy is cool. In a completely unrealistic and preposterous turn, The Zohan’s body realizes that Dalia’s the only girl for him and, as such, all of his “special accoutrements” (which he’s been using with the alacrity of a wild hare) stop working for anybody else. The two eventually get married and manage the salon together. The Zohan’s neighbor also gives good advice, saying, “You can’t keep secrets in a relationship.”
For a film that explicitly deals with the tensions between Jews and Muslims, it obtusely ignores religion—to an almost frightening degree. Though audiences see various aspects of both Jewish and Islamic faith (a character talks about a Bar Mitzvah, for instance, and we hear the distinctive Islamic call to prayer as part of a joke), these references are left to float in a spiritual vacuum.
Let’s begin with the shorts. The Zohan is shown several times in shorts and skivvies that graphically suggest how well-endowed he is. We later learn that most of that apparent size is the product of freakishly luxuriant pubic hair, but that doesn’t stop The Zohan from showing his wares off to practically everyone he talks with: He reveals himself to a doctor, asks an effeminate hairdresser to peer down his pants and is utterly uninhibited when it comes to showing off for his elderly customers. In an early confrontation with The Phantom, The Zohan drops a piranha down his swimming trunks to prove he feels no pain—and The Phantom obligingly peeks to see what’s happening.
We also see The Zohan naked from the rear a handful of times, including one scene in which he catches a thrown fish with his, um, cheeks.
The Zohan is hyper-promiscuous, and he has an inexhaustible supply of nicknames for his private parts and the act of sex. (Those euphemisms, I think, are what allowed this film to sneak into theaters with a PG-13 rating.) He places vacuum nozzles on his customers’ breasts, rubs his crotch against their shoulders and removes their earrings with his lips. He sprays them with water, takes off his shirt and, at one juncture, pours shampoo into his mouth and then lets the gel ooze onto a client’s scalp.
When he and a customer go into a back room, we see the adjoining wall shake and vibrate, sending shampoo bottles and even shelves flying. Other hairdressers pay this no nevermind, suggesting it happens a lot. When the women leave the room, their hair and makeup is mussed. We actually see The Zohan physically engaged with an overweight neighbor lady—to the horror of the neighbor’s adult son, who walks in on them. (Critical body parts are blocked from view.) At another juncture, we see the neighbor’s bare backside.
The Zohan shows and tells us that he is heterosexual. When someone asks him if he’s “bionic,” The Zohan answers, “No, no, I only like the girls. Thanks anyways.” But one of his fellow hairdressers is stereotypically portrayed as effeminate. And when The Zohan and some of his compatriots are assaulted by rednecks (who, we are told, hate Jews, Arabs, homosexuals and puppies), one of the assailants winds up flying into an apartment filled with “presumably” gay men, including uncloseted celebrities George Takei and Bruce Vilanch.
We hear a great deal about an evil developer’s large-breasted girlfriend (whose implants eventually pop like balloons). The Zohan makes a comment about Mariah Carey’s cleavage. In a cameo, John McEnroe rips off his shirt. Young women parade around in skimpy bikinis and underwear. Characters make crude references to various politicians and their wives.
Cartoonish violence includes a wild opening sequence in which The Zohan punches and kicks his way through scads of terrorists—a scene that includes sailing through windows, kicking through walls and rapidly dismantling loaded guns. The Phantom smacks The Zohan in the head with a paddle, and the two of them play paddle ball with a live grenade.
The Zohan defeats other enemies at later junctures in hand-to-hand combat, ties undesirables into pretzel shapes and plays Hacky Sack with a live cat. He stabs himself in the leg with a pair of scissors, lamenting the fact he had betrayed his salon. The Phantom, meanwhile, trains for a showdown with The Zohan by using a live cow as a punching bag.
Buildings explode. A terrorist gets nibbled on the neck by a piranha. Another gets stabbed in the back by a disembodied hand. A group of them fling a would-be bomb (actually, a big lump of Neosporin ointment) at the salon. A taxi driver mentions that his family’s been hacked to pieces.
We also hear lots of jokes centering around actual terrorist organizations. For instance, when a handful of wannabe terrorists call the Hezbollah helpline for instructions on how to build a bomb, they are told that Hezbollah can’t answer right now due to ongoing peace negotiations with Israel. Call back, the recording says, “as soon as negotiations break down.”
One f-word and about 10 s-words. Other profanities include “a–,” “b–tard” and “d–n.” God’s name is used inappropriately a handful of times.
Characters may drink a bit during one dinner scene, but The Zohan’s apparent addictions center around hummus and a fizzy Middle Eastern drink.
The Zohan lies about his ethnicity at one point. And send-ups of ethnic stereotypes are rampant.
Characters spit and throw up. The Zohan sprays hummus on a cat. The long-suffering feline endures another humiliation when The Zohan urinates in its kitty litter, wetting the cat’s fur, as well.
Sure, You Don’t Mess With The Zohan is supposed to be about an Israeli counterterrorist-turned-hairdresser. But really that’s just a cover story. Star Adam Sandler and his cohorts hoped to successfully satirize something much deeper: The thousands-year rift between Israel and her neighbors.
They knew they were treading on dangerous ground. “Any time you do any version of comedy that has anything to do with race or prejudice, you’re always going to make some people mad,” screenwriter Robert Smigel told The New York Times. “Whether your intention is pure or not, they’re going to find something to be angry about.”
Audience members I saw The Zohan with weren’t precisely angry. Just confused. They met many political jokes with nervous laughter, it seemed, if they laughed at all. Perhaps, with terrorism and Mideast tension snagging daily headlines, it’s just too near to us to laugh.
But it’s more likely, I think, that this film doesn’t work because, well, it doesn’t work. It reinforces stereotypes even as it mocks them. It addresses racial tension but ignores the histories, politics, ideologies and religions that surround them. It scraps keen, insightful wit for preschool-age morals and punch lines aimed at 13-year-old boys with a thing for whoopee cushions. The Zohan is also as sexually crass as any PG-13 movie I’ve seen in a while, having rammed its way through the ratings system with what must have been one of The Zohan’s own powerful wall-kicks.
Should I have expected anything more from Adam Sandler?
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.