It was Mae West who famously quipped (in 1933’s I’m No Angel), “When I’m good, I’m very, very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.” You Don’t Mess With the Zohan inspires a bastardization of that quote: When it’s funny, it’s very, very funny, but when it’s bad, it’s downright awful. That’s a shame, because choice moments suggest that this could have been Adam Sandler’s best comedy -- not a Herculean feat, by any means, but after a career littered by the likes of Big Daddy, Little Nicky and the dismal remake of The Longest Yard, we’ll take what we can get. Penning the script with Robert Smigel and omniscient “It” guy Judd Apatow, Sandler, whose newly buff frame and stylish facial hair prove to be a good look for him, plays Zohan, an Israeli antiterrorist agent who tires of his violent lot in life. While battling his arch-nemesis, the Palestinian warrior The Phantom (John Turturro), Zohan fakes his own death and moves to New York City to pursue his dream of becoming a hair stylist (his Bible is an 80s-era Paul Mitchell catalogue). Zohan’s ability to make his place of employment’s elderly customers feel attractive turns him into a salon star, but trouble rears its head after he’s spotted by a Palestinian cab driver (Rob Schneider) seeking personal revenge for a past slight. This one contains a greater success ratio than most Sandler flicks: The opening act’s skewering of macho action film conventions is inspired, as is a telling scene in which a political discussion among Middle Eastern immigrants disintegrates into a chat about which female political figures are babes (it’s decided that John McCain’s wife is not only hot but also probably “isn’t getting any”). But the humorous moments are too few and too far between, like Easter eggs hidden throughout a grassy field. Most of the time, we’re forced to contend with elements that drag down the vast majority of Sandler comedies: puerile humor aimed at 10-year-old boys, “gay-panic”-inspired discussions of penis sizes, and Sandler regular Schneider again demonstrating that he possesses the comic instincts of Dick Cheney.
It isn’t obnoxious. It isn’t without heart or soul. It isn’t packed to the rafters with potty humor. And it isn’t made solely for the ADD-afflicted. In short, it isn’t like the majority of today’s non-Pixar animated features. It’s important not to oversell the picture, because at the end of the day, it’s still a formulaic family film featuring the usual type of underachiever who invariably headlines toon romps of this nature. But in other ways, it’s a delight, wrapping its familiar messages of acceptance and self-confidence in the middle of a provocative visual scheme that’s always pleasant to study and absorb. Jack Black employs his patented shtick as an overweight panda who longs to become a martial arts expert, but it suits this story just fine. As the vicious snow leopard who seeks to claim the high-and-mighty title of Dragon Warrior, Deadwood’s Ian McShane effectively provides guttural menace. And while the actors who provide the voices for the legendary martial arts outfit The Furious Five aren’t given enough to do (Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, David Cross, Lucy Liu and especially poor Jackie Chan are the victims), all is forgiven whenever the character of Master Shifu appears on screen. It’s a sizable part, meaning that we’re constantly treated to Dustin Hoffman’s quirky take on the role of a diminutive red panda who serves as mentor to the other animals. Hoffman has played a remarkable array of characters over his 41-year film career -- Benjamin Braddock, Ratzo Rizzo, Dorothy Michaels, etc. -- but I never thought he’d be tackling Mr. Miyagi. I was wrong.