But I was startled to find myself laughing at a few bits, early on in the film, as Sandler's Zohan, an Israeli counterterrorism commando, goes up against his nemesis, a Palestinian terrorist known as the Phantom (John Turturro). Zohan has found some unexpected laughs in sending up the outrageousness of action movies. I figured it couldn't last, though -- once Zohan comes to America, surely things would revert to the usual Sandler shtick. He's tired of being the world's best soldier, you see, and he wants merely to indulge his dream of being a hairdresser.
Oh, there's much messiness in store for Zohan once the action moves to New York City. He's forced to take a menial job sweeping up cut hair in a beauty parlor. Even worse, he's stuck in an unnamed ethnic neighborhood (the "Little Left Bank," maybe?) where Arab and Jew live together in harmony. Fortunately, Zohan avoids the pitfall that often brings down this genre of nutty comedy: There's nothing mean-spirited about it. It's crude in many ways -- the sexual humor is frank and nonstop -- but it's never vulgar. (In fact, it's often strikingly sweet.) Zohan ends up making a name for himself as a hairdresser, not only because he's quite an artist with the scissors but also because he genuinely loves women of all ages, shapes, and sizes. He is more than happy to treat his elderly clients to, ahem, a little something extra along with their haircuts and dye jobs. Zohan turns this expected angle on its head by refusing to laugh at the idea of old women as sexual creatures. It's silly, sure, but it's not dirty. Zohan is insatiable in the same way that Austin Powers is randy, as a celebration rather than something to be embarrassed about. Hey, sex is fun! the movie seems to cheer. Fun for everyone!
Of course the Phantom shows up again in New York to haunt Zohan. But if you gauge the tone correctly, even a comedy about terrorism can work. And Zohan gets it almost right, because it doesn't laugh at innocent people being hurt or religious brainwashing that turns otherwise ordinary people into killing machines. Instead, it laughs at the fact that we make mountains out of molehills, that we magnify the small differences between us rather than pointing out our many similarities. If Arabs and Jews can get along in New York, why can't they do it everywhere? A simplistic idea, sure. But it's a nice thought, isn't it? (Rated PG-13)