Jesse Hassenger’s autobiography, in the form of a stupendously in-depth review of You Don’t Mess with the Zohan
May I call you Adam? Even setting aside the fact that I’ve never actually met you, I feel that we’ve been growing apart lately. I mean, back in high school, we still didn’t know each other, but we were pretty tight â€“ like one of those dudes you spend a lot of time with even though you’ve never met his family or slept over at his house. I saw Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore on opening weekend, and they provided some lightly absurdist comfort after the Wayne’s World series was curtailed at its first sequel. Saturday Night Live was at such a low point (though I still watched, usually) that you and your faithful co-writer Tim Herlihy were actually able to come up with better material for the movies, which, as your pal Dan Aykroyd can tell you, doesn’t happen that often.
In fall of ’98 I went off to college, and I wasn’t a huge fan of The Waterboy, but I admit I giggled just about every time you screamed and tackled some huge linebacker, and I couldn’t help but feel a little bit of pride when it brought in unexpectedly massive box-office â€“ at least partially, I assumed, due to accrued goodwill from Madison, Gilmore, and The Wedding Singer. We stayed in touch throughout my college years; I even went to see Little Nicky, and enjoyed it. Industry observers thought maybe that movie underperformed because of your weird voice and haircut, which seems like an odd assumption from anyone who saw The Waterboy.
But maybe that’s why you returned to regular-dude territory with Mr. Deeds, which wasn’t as funny as Billy Madison, but showcased your strange generosity as a comic actor, the way you gave all the best bits to John Turturro and Steve Buscemi. By this point, you were pretty much a sure thing in a broad comedy, Little Nicky nonwithstanding; if you threw together a movie, at least $120 million worth of moviegoers would show up. It seemed reasonable to assume that the high-school and college kids who grew up with Madison, Gilmore, and Singer were treating your new, less bizarre vehicles as comfort food. No less a light than Paul Thomas Anderson admitted that he cast you in Punch-Drunk Love because he found Saturday-night solace in your goofy comedies.
But somewhere along the way to mainstream semi-respectability, those comedies got lazier.
Rather than generate your own slapdash screenplays with Herlihy and company, your team started doing slapdash, uncredited rewrites on pre-existing high concepts. The result was a bunch of sure shots (squaring off with a rageful Jack Nicholson in Anger Management; remaking The Longest Yard; possessing a magical remote control in Click) that maintained your box-office track record but were never quite as funny as they should’ve been. You cast yourself more and more in the everyman role, and those laughs you ceded circa Mr. Deeds were suddenly less frequent. It got to the point where your reunion with Drew Barrymore, 50 First Dates, was notable more for its dramatic moments than its comedy, something I never would’ve predicted even from watching Big Daddy back in ’99.
Even more frustrating, you gave fascinating performances for other people’s movies (which is to say, movies not directed by dudes who have probably slept on your couch at some point). The PTA movie you did, Punch-Drunk Love, is one of the best movies of the decade, functioning as both an offbeat romance and an arty deconstruction of your violent man-child persona. Spanglish and Reign Over Me are both hot messes, but your performances in both are unquestionable highlights: grounded, complex, yet thoroughly Sandleresque. When I saw your work in those, I felt that old surge of pride, like when you hear an old buddy from high school got married to a respectable lady. That Sandler guy really scored!
But, like I said, your actual comedies were stagnating, like when you hear an old buddy from high school is listening to String Cheese Incident. We were drifting apart as people. Last summer, I couldn’t even bring myself to see I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. I think (I hope) your heart was in the right place, but it just looked too dopey; I knew I’d have to slog through way too much homophobia just for another Buscemi cameo and a supposed message of tolerance. Whether it was out of habit or luck or just a tendency to see just about anything, I hadn’t missed one of your movies in the theaters since the ticket lady wouldn’t let me in to see the R-rated Bulletproof (remember when you tried to be an action star? Good times).
Given all of this baggage, I entered into You Don’t Mess with the Zohan several weeks late and with now-customary low expectations. Imagine my delight, then, to find that it’s your best, most inspired comedy in ages — and that you play an actual character, not just a quasi-working-class who says “ain’t” all the time like a slightly less rural Larry the Cable Guy. Your invincible Jewish supersoldier-turned-hairdresser may be about ninety percent cartoon, and maybe even a self-aggrandizing cartoon, but it’s all so wonderfully silly that it doesn’t much matter. I knew you had it in you, buddy. No one who conceived Little Nicky as a starring vehicle for himself could play the dumb version of Tom Hanks forever.
You do good work behind the camera, too; writing with Judd Apatow and Robert Smigel is a gigantic leap in the right direction, even if the result isn’t exactly Knocked Up (though I see your next semi-serious movie is a full-fledged Apatow picture; well-played, sir). Even when the gags are sophomoric, they just feel different when they’re your own jokes, not something wedged into premises and scenes clearly blueprinted by others. Part of the fun of the movie is parsing what stuff came from you, which were more likely Apatow’s, and which bear the unmistakable imprint of Smigel (any so-absurd-they’re-sublime racial stereotypes, for example, have a distinct TV Funhouse vibe).
You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is far from perfect; it’s far even from Happy Gilmore. For one thing, at nearly two hours it’s far longer than necessary. More to the point, the rambling running time is symptomatic of many of your old stand-by crutches: running gags that don’t escalate or pay off; one-joke characters, like Nick Swardson being traumatized by his mother’s sexual relationship with Zohan; and unnecessary side bits that just aren’t as funny as the unnecessary side bits in, say, a good Will Ferrell joint.
Actually, if I can be blunt, I think that problem finds its way into your casting, too. I used to sort of dig how your movies had the same bunch of dudes in different supporting parts; it felt like you were making a movie just for the hell of it, for your own goofball enjoyment. But then some of your contemporaries did the same thing, only with people who are actually talented: Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, and now all of those Apatow dudes have turned buddy-hiring into an art form. Meanwhile, your crew looks mangier by the movie: Kevin Nealon, Rob Schneider, Nick Swardson… John McEnroe? It all starts to look a little too much like a barbecue over at the Sandler mansion, an unfunny version of the drunken carousing in Billy Madison. If you insist on maintaining that loose, all-inclusive vibe, at least throw Jon Lovitz or Norm MacDonald a few more bones. They could use the work. Or maybe concentrate more on your indie buddies. Luis Guzman and Steve Buscemi may sit Zohan out, but John Turturro’s work as Palestinian terrorist The Phantom is major coup; he kills every time he’s on screen. His absurdist training montage beats just about any single scene in the classier but less riotous Get Smart.
With a little more discipline, you might yet make something to match your mid-nineties glory years. But I’m not writing to kvetch; it’s a fun, silly movie with a more convincing message of tolerance than I got from those bad-vibe Chuck and Larry trailers. I can finally say it’s good to see you again. Which brings me to my final point: Don’t be discouraged that Zohan is barely gonna eke out $100 million when most of your movies make twenty or forty percent more. Don’t take your lowest-grossing broad comedy since Little Nicky as a sign to retreat into the sluggish big-money likes of The Longest Yard. You have plenty of money. Indulge your weirdo instincts. Remember that scene in Nicky where Reese Witherspoon plays your angelic mom and notes that God is “so smart â€“ like, Jeopardy smart”? Remember that scene in Zohan where you chase John Turturro while swimming like a glorious dolphin? This is what you were put on this earth to do. In between the serious stuff, do more of that. I know your next movie is directed by Adam Shankman, so we can write that off immediately. No worries. Just keep it in mind. I only want what’s best for you.
Also, if you see Herlihy, tell him I said get back to work, be it writing or dog-sitting.