Movie makers could take a hint from the guy putting anchovies on your pizza: A little goes a long way. That could mean fewer sequels, prequels and franchises that began life as comic books. The latest have arrived from movie comics Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell, as predictable and welcome for some in their timing as acne on a teenager. In case you’ve missed the non-stop previews and commercial tie-ins, Ferrell is basketball basket case Jackie Moon in Semi-Pro. Sandler plays a different game in You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. These two almost seem like cousins: Sandler and Ferrell are nearly the same age with fat resumes from TV work (sometimes the same programs) and they’ve appeared in roughly three dozen movies. Both have an irreducible fan base, which includes few — if any — critics. Like cousins, you either love them or hate them. That’s our Smackdown!: Is Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell showing signs of wearing out his welcome?
Zohan Dvir (Sandler) faces a crisis: He no longer has any appetite for counter-terrorism as an agent for the Israeli Mossad. It’s gotten so bad Zohan fakes his death to follow his dream — as a hair dresser in New York. Not an easy trip: Zohan has a certain hairy charm, but no haircutting experience and his bag of social graces has a hole in it (playing hacky-sack with a family pet, and catching fish with his butt cheeks). Zohan catches on in a salon owned by an arab woman and gives new meaning to “customer service” for his mature women clients. Complications develop: he falls for his boss, Dalia (Emannuelle Chriqui), Zohan’s old nemesis Phantom (John Turturro) comes gunning for him in Manhattan and local racists threaten to firebomb everyone in sight. The world does not end. Dennis Dugan directed You Don’t Mess with the Zohan from a script written by Sandler, comedy juggernaut Judd Apatow and Robert Smigel (creator of Triumph, the insult comic dog).
Semi-Pro (released February 29th) presents a different problem for Jackie Moon: His basketball team — The Flint Tropics — is fighting for its life. The National Basketball Association will absorb four teams from the Tropics’ failing league and Jackie’s team stinks. What to do, what to do? Jackie’s not much of a player, or coach or team owner but he’s one hell of a promoter. Writer Scot Armstrong dribbles this comedy forward with the sort of schtick you expect from a movie starring Will Ferrell: oddball stunts, a cage fight with a brown bear and too much exposed skin from Ferrell.
Zohan and Semi-Pro serve up variations on lead characters that populate nearly every Sandler and Will Ferrell movie. What do they do with it? Once again, Ferrell offers up the same empty stare and self-absorbed world view you saw in Zoolander, Bewitched and Old School. As a comedic persona it may be losing its juice. Too often, a “Will Ferrell Comedy” is a one-man show without a suitable second banana. Semi-Pro features Woody Harrelson as a former NBA benchwarmer traded to the Tropics for the team’s washing machine. That premise is funnier than Harrelson’s character, Ed Monix. The movie completely wastes the talents and presence of Maura Tierney (ER, NewsRadio). Semi-Pro has its moments, just not enough of them, and they’ don’t often go to cast members not named Will Ferrell.
Zohan portrays Adam Sandler as an overbearing, emotionally incomplete (sound familiar?) schlemiel with a good heart and a little too much rage under the surface. That’s not enough to propel any movie, and Zohan has the good sense to spread the humor around. John Turturro plays Phantom over the top, and Rob Schneider is reliably repellent as a cab driver who can’t navigate his way through the Hezbollah Helpline. There are too many penis jokes and pelvic thrusts and the accents swallow some of the dialog. I suspect some of the language isn’t really Hebrew or Yiddish (the way doritos isn’t Spanish) but the phrasing makes the point. Zohan makes good use of cameo appearances by Mariah Carey, Chris Rock, John McEnroe and Shelley Berman. Zohan makes a half-hearted jab at promoting Arab-Israeli tolerance, which goes to show the material aims for more than laughs.
So, is Ferrell or Sandler risking a case of overexposure? It looks that way.
Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell don’t play fully dimensional characters and their choice of movie material reflects that. They don’t make high art or high comedy. Make no mistake: Some of it is tasteless, offensive and promotes stereotypes. Balancing all that with amiability is quite an achievement.
Right now, Adam Sandler succeeds better because his movies rely on more than his contributions. Zohan offers more: character development, story line, it even promotes tolerance (in a small way) in the Middle East. Apart from all that, Zohan is funny; Semi-Pro is amusing, in spots. Semi-funny. Not a good sign for a comedy, or for Will Ferrell.
Easy decision: Adam Sandler proves with our winner that “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.”