In You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, Adam Sandler is a babe magnet with the stamina to satisfy harems of hot chicks and the bounteousness to bestow his sexual favors on septuagenarians, too. He’s also a virtuosic hand-to-hand-to-smelly-foot fighter with the elastic limbs of a Marvel superfreak. He’s a military hero—an Israeli military hero, the ultimate in Jewish-mother-pleasing accomplishments. He builds bridges between gays and straights, Israelis and Palestinians. He puts out fires with hummus. He has enough confidence in his heterosexuality to dream of life as a salon stylist making hair “silky-smooth.” In real life, Sandler’s endorsement could not propel Rudy Giuliani to the presidency, but he has achieved something even more improbable: coaxing funny performances from Rob Schneider. Who among us cannot say, “This is a man”?
How does Sandler get by with narcissistic fantasies so far-out? One way is by turning them into camp, so that he seems to be satirizing the movie-star potency he’s actually peddling. The art is in the balance. Sandler never falls into the Jerry Lewis mode of naked self-infatuation. Something fogbound in his demeanor takes the edge off his self-aggrandizement—a quality Paul Thomas Anderson exploited beautifully in Punch-Drunk Love, in which Sandler played an emotionally overdefended child-man who floated through the world in a solipsistic (but lyrical) bubble. Like Will Ferrell, Sandler has layers of tenderness under layers of irony under layers of tenderness—plus a floating anger like Jupiter’s great red spot.
Zohan pushes the usual gross-out buttons, racial-stereotype buttons, and look-at-the-bazongas-on-that-stone-fox buttons. Many will be incensed by Rob Schneider’s feebleminded Palestinian cabbie, who still seethes over Zohan’s long-ago theft of his precious pet goat. (Although they’ll have to get in line behind Asians still seething over Schneider’s bucktoothed flied-lice Chinaman in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry.) Schneider can be wonderful when he’s focused rather than expansive, and I found his undying outrage over that goat very touching—although it falls short, admittedly, as a metaphor for Palestinian historical grievances. Others will not care for the depiction of Israeli-American electronics salesmen as incorrigible bait-and-switch motormouths (“Press this button, you get free HBO”), with the likely exception of those of us who’ve been browbeaten into taking home their shitty receivers. The ASPCA will not enjoy the cruelty to animals, even though they’re obviously stuffed. Mariah Carey fans will not enjoy the terribleness of her acting, even though she’s obviously stuffed. As the Phantom, Zohan’s Palestinian archenemy, Sandler-movie stalwart John Turturro acts high on the non-halal hog, at one point letting out a long warble of despair that made me laugh so hard I felt like I was warbling back.
Zohan is not in the class of Sandler’s I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, which, as the critic Nathan Lee pointed out on its release (to many raised eyebrows), challenged the homophobia of the mainstream more aggressively than Brokeback Mountain. The script by Sandler, Robert Smigel, and Judd Apatow stays on the level of sketch comedy. (Whereas Chuck & Larry, in which Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor had a hand, featured actual human relationships.) But director Dennis Dugan knows his way around shin-whacking slapstick, and Sandler is mesmerizing. Some performers become stars because we can read them instantly, others—like Sandler—because we never tire of trying to get a fix on them. We can only be sure that, with Sandler’s fan base, there will be many more mad narcissistic fantasies to come.
As a documentarian, Werner Herzog approaches alien landscapes with a mixture of breathlessness and wariness. He is a driven man—self-dramatizing, unafraid to pose metaphysical questions, unembarrassed (I surmise) at occasionally sounding like a crackpot. He empathizes with the explorer’s urge to measure oneself against nature, even to the point of leaping into the void; yet the stories to which he gravitates are of leapers who don’t respect the immensity of the natural world and are chewed and spat out by it.
At first, his newest film, Encounters at the End of the World, is unusually detached, rambling in its approach to the setting—Antarctica’s McMurdo Station—and the sundry eccentrics who reside there. Who are these people drawn to the edge of the planet, and what are their dreams? Here’s a man who was a banker and then joined the Peace Corps. Here’s a guy who majored in linguistics who has come to a place without people—and, hence, languages. Here’s a woman who can talk your head off about her death-defying treks from continent to continent. Here’s where the fabled explorer Shackleton lived. Let’s dive under the ice and see the bizarre spindly creatures.
But midway through, an eerier theme creeps in, all the more powerful for Herzog’s lack of insistence. By the “end of the world” he means the end of the world. The people he’s profiling aren’t the overweeners pitting themselves against nature. They’re the reporters, the realists, the ones who say the ground is not as solid as in our Shackleton-inspired imaginations. The ice is alive—breaking up, moving in ways we can hardly imagine. Human life on the planet is not assured. We are the overweeners.