You Don't Mess With the Zohan

You Don’t Mess With The Zohan” (2008) 
Dismissed upon its release by critics (though it’s not like even the best dumb Adam Sandler movie has fared well with them), and even Adam Sandler fans, “You Don’t Mess With Zohan” is perhaps Sandler’s most ambitious film to date and his most criminally underappreciated later-era work. Primarily this is due to the writing, as ‘Zohan’ is penned by Judd Apatow and comedian Robert Smigel (aka Triumph The Insult Comic Dog who had cameoed in some of the earlier Sandler films) whose absurd premise makes for some laugh-out-loud amusement. Sandler stars as Zohan Dvir, a superstar Israeli counter-terrorist operative exhausted with all the bloodshed and intractable violence who just wants to quit and pursue his secret life-long dream: cutting hair, like his dated hero Vidal Sassoon. Disenchanted with the hypocrisies and bureaucracy of both sides, Zohan fakes his death in a fight with his Palestinian arch-enemy Fatoush "the Phantom" Hakbarah (John Turturro in one of his finest comedy roles) and reemerges in New York as a hairdresser with a completely new identity. The most respected soldier in the Israeli army, it doesn’t take long before other fellow expats at Eurotrash discos (Ido Mosseri) recognize him. The supporting cast is rich. Nick Swardson as Zohan's first friend demonstrates why "Bucky Larson" aside, this guy is a great supporting player. Lainie Kazan as Swardson's oversexed mother is hysterical and appearances by Emmanuelle Chirqui, Kevin Nealon and yes, even Rob Schneider (in his most tolerable Sandler-movie bit part) only bolster the comedy even further. Budgeted at a near-ridiculous $90 million, there’s almost no good reason any comedy should cost half this much, but ‘Zohan’ is filled with elaborate, ambitious action sequences that veer off into the absurd of CGI-necessary gags (the otherwise pedestrian Dennis Dugan’s most complex work to date, though admittedly, many of them are still clumsy and stupid). Libidinous, crass, scatological and crude, ‘Zohan’ isn’t afraid to spray its various streams of liquid across the screen (including an invented Israeli soda named Fizzy-Bubbeleh), but much of it is shockingly funnier than you’d expect. Much of the comedy also stems from the American Jewish comedians willingness to mock their Middle Eastern brethren -- their hopelessly outdated pop culture taste, whether it applies to fashion, music, hair styles; the incessant electronic store haggling, the escalating hummus jokes -- and it totally works. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the naive “can’t we get along” utopia depicted on the streets of New York where Jews, Muslims, Arabs and Middle Easterners of all stripes peacefully coexist, is simplistic and not terribly sophisticated, but it’s also subversive; the fact that the satire of this conflict comes up in a major mainstream comedy that grossed over $100 million at the U.S. box-office is pretty radical. [B+]

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry

"I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry" (2007)
Based in part on an infinitely funnier screenplay written by "Election" and "Sideways" creators Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne called "Flamers" (Payne later publicly bashed the released version of the movie, claiming the star "Sandlerized" his script), "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" concerns a pair of firefighters (played by Sandler and Kevin James) who pretend to be a committed gay couple to get benefits from the union. It's a pretty sitcom-y premise, especially when you throw in a number of characters who want to prove that their marriage is a farce (led by surprising Sandler regular Steve Buscemi in a truly oddball role, even for him) and a forced love story involving Sandler and his comely heterosexual lawyer (Jessica Biel, in a role uniquely suited to both her sex appeal and comedy chops). When "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" is bad, it's hide-your-face-under-the-pillow bad, especially in the beginning when the word "faggot" is dropped like loose change, but when it's good, it's surprisingly, upliftingly wonderful and subversive. This is particularly true in the case of the Ving Rhames character, a fellow firefighter who most of the other guys assume is some kind of ax-murdering madman, but who turns out to also be gay. This is another of the more visually striking Sandler movies, again because of the camerawork by Australian cinematographer Dean Semler, and even if it's not 100% in the clear (things like Rob Schneider's yellowface and some of the gags that can only be read as homophobic), it does come off, in the end, as a shockingly progressive piece of work by a man known primarily for his fondness of fart jokes and silly voices. You kind of wish you could hate it more, which makes it even more lovable. [B+]


Click” (2006)
Nothing ever goes right when you give a comedian god-like powers. Witness the joyless “Bruce Almighty,” where Jim Carrey takes on the mantle of supreme being and proceeds to mess around like a twelve-year-old for the film’s entire runtime. Worse yet is “Click,” where Sandler is gifted with a “universal” remote found in the depths of Bed, Bath & Beyond (“Family Guy”™). Where Carrey could always lean on his rubber-faced physicality, Sandler natters back and forth as an overworked everyman who uses the device to balance work and family, which is even less thrilling than it sounds on paper. In the meantime, the limited imagination on display results in a series of moments where he’s adding slow motion to a set of bouncing breasts (dumb), fast-forwarding through foreplay with wife Kate Beckinsale (INHUMAN) and eventually pressing a button to zip through meetings at work (WOW THIS IS EXCITING TELL ME MORE). But the biggest sin, other than being a laughless waste of time, is turning the remote into a teachable moment for Sandler, as he reveals he fast-forwards through entire years, skipping over touchstones in his childrens’ lives. “Click” turns maudlin in a hurry, forcing Sandler to go on crying jags in a hulking fat suit in order for us to suddenly find something to like about this indistinguishable oaf. There’s a nugget of gold in the casting of Christopher Walken as the kooky proprietor of the remote, but it’s similar to the one minute of screen time given a hilarious, mugging Terry Crews -- there are funny ideas all around, and none the movie feels worthy of pursuing. [D-]

Longest Yard (2005)

The Longest Yard” (2005)
The only Adam Sandler comedy in which the murder of longtime confederate Chris Rock is played for laughs (or, if not laughs, then extremely uncomfortable plot devices). A remake of the 1974 film of the same name, which also starred Burt Reynolds, "The Longest Yard" is a combination prison movie and wish-fulfillment fantasy that follows a bunch of inmates who play their guards in a game of prison yard football. (Sandler plays the part originated by Reynolds.) Of course, what makes the 2005 movie stand out is just how bland it is -- there is a larger cast, many of whom are considerable athletic talents, and a more jazzed up final game, but very little in terms of heart or actual smarts. Sandler's problematic relationships with race (Rock picks a lock with his afro pick) and sexuality (there is a gang of effeminate prison yard cheerleaders led by Tracy Morgan) are on full display. There are a number of fine supporting performances, though, particularly by William Fichtner as one of the guards and James Cromwell as the morally bankrupt warden (are there any other kinds?) "The Longest Yard" is also somewhat notable for being one of the very best-looking Sandler movies, thanks in large part to Australian cinematographer Dean Semler, who shoots a lot of the movie with natural light and deep, harsh shadows. There are even some editorial flourishes towards the end, including some De Palma-worthy split screen action. It's not excruciatingly horrible but it's not something that you'd actively seek out to watch, either. [C]

50 First Dates Drew Barrymore Adam Sandler

50 First Dates” (2004)
Re-teaming Adam Sandler with “The Wedding Singer” love interest Drew Barrymore, Sandler plays a commitment-phobe Sea Life Park veterinarian named Henry (yes, there are Walrus penis jokes) who falls for a chronic amnesiac named Lucy (Barrymore) in scenic Hawaii. Due to a car accident the year before, Lucy wakes up everyday thinking it’s that specific date, forgetting anything that has happened since. After meeting and falling for her, Henry is told of her condition, but won’t let that stop him. Remember, this is supposed to be a romantic comedy, not a stalker thriller. Henry begins by wooing her day-by-day and as his feelings develop and strengthen, so does the relationship change and take form thanks to Lucy’s diaries and his video for her that helps her catch up to what’s happened on a daily basis. Through some ups and downs, including her trying to erase him from her life entirely, the two find a way to make it work. Although out-there in its premise, “50 First Dates” is an endearing movie about two confused people in love. Unfortunately, it’s also burdened with a big dose of Sandler’s questionable and crude humor, making it miss the “The Wedding Singer” mark, even if Sandler and Barrymore cite it as one of their favorites. That said, besides a charming Barrymore, the cast includes Happy Madison regular Rob Schneider as a goofy pothead native Hawaiian, Sean Astin as Barrymore’s roided-up, hilariously short-tempered brother, and Dan Aykroyd as a neurologist. As an excuse for a paid vacation for Sandler and friends, it turned out pretty well, with a few real laughs and heartwarming moments thrown in. [B]