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.
Herzog was invited to Antarctica by the National Science Foundation, with the only stipulation that he not make another penguin movie. He can’t quite pull that off: The movie’s most haunting image is of a little penguin trudging by its lonesome in the exact opposite direction it should be heading—toward distant mountains and certain death. Why? Herzog respects the penguin’s mystery. A scientist says that up here you hear “the universe whispering to itself.” What is it saying? Herzog doesn’t speculate. He ends with underwater seal calls—high-pitched, inorganic-sounding, yet keening, like a message to extraterrestrials saying the end is near.
Herzog grapples with the external world; Guy Maddin pulls the world into himself, sinks his fingers into it, and sculpts. His inner landscape is remarkably vivid. His films are montage-collages, found footage woven into faux–found footage, with an Expressionistic intensity unseen since the days of the German silents. At their best, they are like psychosexual messages piped in from the collective unconscious of moviegoers; the medium itself becomes the ultimate fetish. But they are better in small doses, before Maddin’s digressions and the sheer overload of his miraculous imagery wears you down. My Winnipeg is overloaded and digressive—it comes with the territory—but it’s also grounded in a place, Maddin’s Manitoban hometown, and it’s painfully engrossing. The grounding keeps the movie focused—or focused enough. The inner and outer worlds glance off each other: The destruction of an old, beloved hockey arena represents the death of Maddin’s father and of the city’s soul. The enduring image of his mother—withholding yet controlling, with an aversion to nature—looms in stark close-up, larger than the landscape. The force of her will and her lap (many lap close-ups) holds Maddin in place; the train out of town in which the narrator reclines, reminiscing, never seems to get beyond the outskirts. The city’s seminal events feed into Maddin’s sense of futility—like his cartoon rendering of the horses in the twenties that were driven from their barn by fire, leaped into one of Winnipeg’s four rivers, and gradually froze in place as the current met the unmovable ice. There is footage of people strolling on that ice among the frozen horse heads, smiling, smooching, unaware of the symbolism, while Maddin palpably sides with the animals, their faces contorted in agony. He’s not going anywhere.
The first half of Quid Pro Quo is among the most jaw-dropping things I’ve ever seen: Who knew there was a closeted subculture of people pretending to be paraplegics? Nick Stahl is a paralyzed NPR reporter who wheels around in search of the real story; Vera Farmiga is the femme fatale who’s into spokes. Director Carlos Brooks’s script is lovingly strange—until the climactic revelation, which we’ve seen creaking toward us for some time. The movie is best when it’s most open-ended. But Farmiga is—as usual—scarily good. Her madness isn’t something out of the ether. She’s always visibly calculating, thinking better of something reckless she’s about to do—then doing it anyway. It’s a very erotic portrait if you’ve ever yearned to be flattened by a kamikaze wheelchair-driver.
By mining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for comedy, You Don’t Mess With the Zohan triggered a level of scrutiny quite unlike the typical Adam Sandler gagfest. A spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations told the New York Times that he would be watching for anti-Arab bias: “I would say I’m a little worried.” The cast’s many Arab actors overcame any reservations. Sayed Badreya, an Egyptian who emigrated to attend NYU film school, explained part of his thinking to the Times: “The movie presents what happened to me. Since it happened to me, it will work for someone like me.” Plus his teen daughter is a huge Sandler fan.
You Don’t Mess With the Zohan
Directed by Dennis Dugan.
Columbia Pictures. PG-13.
Encounters at the End of the World
Directed by Werner Herzog.
Directed by Guy Maddin.
IFC Films. NR.
Quid Pro Quo
Directed by Carlos Brooks.
Magnolia Pictures. R.