Adam Sandler's movies haver never represented the apex of cultural awareness, but they do tend to grapple, if somewhat brashly, with the finer points of human relations. In his latest raunchfest, You Don't Mess with the Zohan, the insolent comic creates "his stupidest character ever" (as an audience member muttered five minutes into last night's New York preview screening), but it's also his most symbolic one: Sporting a hyperbolic flair for disco music and using hummus as toothpaste, hardened Israeli soldier Zohan is a bloated creature of Semitic extremes.
Overall, however, the movie uses metaphors more than stereotypes. When Zohan and a furious Palestinian terrorist (John Turturro) use paddles to bat a live grenade back and forth, the result is a lowbrow editorial cartoon.
Taking this topicality into account, a recent story in The New York Times dealt with the difficulties of marketing a mainstream comedy with such polarizing issues at its core. But the story ignored a relevant topic that permeates Sandler's career: His decisively conservative outlook. It's no major secret that the actor belongs to a marginalized group of Republicans in a sea of Hollywood liberals -- just take a look at his generous donation to Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign last year -- and it's not that tough to find a current of conservatism in Sandler's films, even going back to his early days.
I'm not one to discount certain indisputably funny ingredients of Sandler's shtick, but the underlying philosophies behind his movies don't always go down with ease. I love Billy Madison -- challenge me on this if you must, but I'm convinced it's one of the great surrealist comedies of the 1990's, right up there with Naked Lunch -- which endorses a one-sided concept of social indoctrination in addition to corporate longevity. Billy isn't considered a proper adult until he decides to go to college, and the grandiose hotel chain started by his father winds up in somebody else's hands. Rather than responsibly putting his money towards a noble cause, Billy hands it off to a friend better equipped to navigate the commercial world.
Sandler's movies often embrace idealized notions of blue collar lifestyles. In Little Nicky, which Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman found "gross, but awash in family values," the devil's son is expected to replace his father, akin to the dilemma facing Billy Madison. The simplified correlation between family and work, a dated model of Norman Rockwell proportions, comes up in the blossoming fatherhood plot of Big Daddy and the stress of a demanding job in Click. The dynamic gets even more complicated with I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, a movie about two straight guys disgusted by homosexuality. You could say the film eventually approves of gay marriage, but it does so with notable reluctance.
Many of the middle American heroes in Sandler's films build their successes out of nothing as if they existed in the imaginary realm of a corrupt politician's stump speech. President Bush once spoke of the all-American narrative as a "story in which evil is real, but courage and decency triumph," and if you squint a little, that pretty much sums up Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy and Spanglish at once. Then there's Mr. Deeds, a remake of the 1936 screwball comedy Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, which was directed by Frank Capra, Hollywood's quintessential chronicler of patriotic standards. In Reign Over Me, meanwhile, Sandler plays Charlie Fineman, an affluent New Yorker learning to overcome his 9/11 losses, recalling the bittersweet illusion of a happy ending that helped the Republican party in November 2004.
Terrorism forms the central concern in Zohan: Sandler's militant cartoon character doesn't like the Palestinians, but he expresses a desire to escape all the squabbling. "They've been fighting 2,000 years," his mother sighs. "It can't be much longer."
Nevertheless, Zohan throws in the towel, heads to New York incognito and pursues his dream of becoming a hairdresser (which prompts his Israeli brethren to label him a faygele, the derogatory Yiddish word used to describe homosexuals).
Working at a barbershop run by an alluring Lebanese woman (Emmanuelle Chriqui), he gradually assimilates himself into a world free of national boundaries. (He also concludes most sessions with -- nasty spoiler alert -- sexual favors in the back room, quickly making him the most popular barber in town among the little old lady contingent.)
Gliding along on stupid-humor autopilot, the movie operates under the guise of a balanced perspective. Zohan convinces the Israeli electronics vendors across the street to make nice with their Palestinian neighbors, and we even hear them discuss a little political common ground: It was the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in 1995, they all agree, that really busted things up for both sides. Then, they bond through mutual appreciation for the sex appeal of Laura Bush.
The ability of these two opposing crowds to pull together would qualify as fantasy if we were supposed to view them as authentic Middle Easterners. Instead, they combine into a surprisingly potent symbol of communal tranquility. "Here," concludes one character, "we're all the same." That clinches it: Zohan isn't pro-Israel or pro-Palestine; it's pro-America.
There's nothing corrupt about Sandler promoting ethnic tolerance, even in a crass vehicle like this. At the same time, the zeal of its conclusion reads like the reductive "fair and balanced" mentality of a Fox newscast -- it's a blind stab at pragmatism that doesn't exist. It's practically an afterthought when somebody shows up in the end to explain the ease with which everybody can just kiss and make up. That's my own qualm with the consistently subdued politics recurring throughout this talented performer's uneven oeuvre: The ideas flow together with a steady stream of cheap quips and the occasional comic gem, but Sandler hardly possesses the astuteness of a satirist. Helplessly mugging for the camera until a good joke comes along, his political depth is just another punchline.