The men behind You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, who would include director Dennis Dugan and producer-writer-star Adam Sandler, must be holding their collective breath in hopes that, before or during its opening weekend, no terrorist blows up more people than the daily average in the Middle East, much less any people in the United States. They cannot have many hopes beyond that. Sandler’s Israeli accent (plus his stammering multiple negatives: “No-no-no-no-no”) seems like a sufficient base for a spy comedy revolving around a hirsute agent of Mossad, a sort of anti-Munich if you please. But the jokes stray a long way off the base and in diverse directions: the hero’s superhuman powers (snagging a bullet in his nostril, doing no-hands pushups, etc.); his pursuit, in America, of his secret desire to cut hair (“I just want to make people silky smooth”); his time-warp sense of fashion, gleaned from a disco-era Paul Mitchell catalogue; his sexual predilection for grateful old biddies; his, or rather (one and the same) the writer-producer’s, Pollyannish appeal for peaceful coexistence; and the hypocritical stigmatization, since somebody has to be the bad guy, of the corporate money-grubber — anybody, to be more particular, besides those altruists at Happy Madison Productions and Sony Pictures.
You might well have wondered what the filmmakers were thinking if the title alone hadn’t instead made you wonder whether, not what, they were thinking. Only because Judd Apatow is listed as a co-writer (a position of limited power) would you be tempted to measure the film against his larger oeuvre, where it would count as a retreat, or more exactly an about-face, from the penile advances in Walk Hard and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, back to the modesty of the tush shot. (Several of them.) Around on that other side, a good deal of attention is paid to the half-coconut bulge in the front of the star’s pants, though it’s made clear (verbally) that this owes to the “bush” and not the log. Just as Sandler’s accent could seem a sufficient comic base, John Turturro might seem an adequate comic adversary as a Palestinian terrorist and fast-food entrepreneur, but this would be hard to verify on the laugh-meter. There are good-sized parts, too, for an all but unrecognizable grease-painted Rob Schneider, Lainie Kazan (posing for a wide, wide tush shot of her own), Nick Swardson, and Emmanuelle Chriqui as a Palestinian cutie-pie, and bite-sized parts for Shelley Berman, Chris Rock, Kevin Nealon, Mariah Carey, and John McEnroe — and not enough laughs to go around even were they sliced into thin smiles.
Kung Fu Panda, from the DreamWorks animation team (John Stevenson, Mark Osborne, co-directors), begins with a dream scene not unlike the beginning of the live-action Forbidden Kingdom, albeit in a flat, hand-drawn style rather than in the plump and spongy computer imagery prevailing thereafter. The dreamer is a tubby panda (voice of Jack Black, tubby typecasting), an envious aficionado of the martial arts, dissatisfied with his lowborn “place” in the family noodle business. Wanting nothing more than to witness the anointment of the new Dragon Warrior, inheritor of the Secret of Limitless Power, he manages by dumb luck to get himself so anointed, in effect hitting the kung-fu lottery. With that, the filmmakers set about to purvey a dearly and widely held fantasy: the idea that the neophyte in any field, but especially the martial-arts field, can quickly close ground on the masters by means of a remedial crash course. Here again, not unlike Forbidden Kingdom.
No matter how low your opinion of kung fu or its film genre, you would be justified in finding this insulting, to both the specified martial art and your intelligence. (David Mamet’s reverent vision in Redbelt, of a peerless jiu-jitsu purist living in self-imposed poverty and obscurity, naturally stood no chance to catch on with the masses.) Animation, despite its easy defiance of physical laws, does not much soften the insult. If the Furious Five — Tiger, Crane, Mantis, Monkey, and Viper — are together no match for the rogue snow leopard, Tai Lung, how can the Portly Panda compete? (I go along with the Tiger when she tells him, “If you have any respect for what we are and what we do, you will be gone in the morning.”) Apart from its featherweight reinforcement of the something-for-nothing ethic, there is probably no great harm in the movie. And in its own field it cuts no corners, leaves no stone unturned. It wouldn’t let a doodling neophyte anywhere near the drawing board. Or the keyboard.
Reprise, a Norwegian film by Danish-born newcomer Joaquim Trier, traces the diverging literary careers of a pair of pissy-and-vinegary young friends in Oslo. One of them (the sallow Anders Danielsen Lie, with an institutional shaved head) has an earlier success, a mental meltdown, and a prominent girlfriend, while the other (the blond and robust Espen Klouman-Hoiner) comes on later but stronger, and would hardly be caught dead in the company of his girlfriend. Trier lays out these paths in an exuberantly youthy style — scrambled timeline, biographical digressions, hypothetical alternatives, know-it-all narrator — such that you might think to look around to see whether there’s not a swelling Norwegian New Wave. (Lifted snippets of Georges Delerue’s music for Godard’s Contempt — the same snippets lifted by Scorsese in Casino — call to mind another New Wave.) Much of the exuberance settles down as the film rolls along, and the people come to seem, despite the all-over pasty color, quite flesh-and-blood, quite real. Which is not to say interesting or compelling, other than to themselves.
The Strangers, the debut of writer-director Bryan Bertino, is a lowbrow (and low-blow) Funny Games, “inspired by true events,” centered on a romantically rocky young couple (so, don’t feel too bad for them, Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman: they were miserable already) terrorized by ghostly now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t masked intruders at an isolated summerhouse. The grim outcome, as compared to that of Funny Games, is more blatantly signalled in a printed prologue (“The brutal events that took place there are still not entirely known”) as well as in the flashback structure (preludial 911 call: “There’s blood everywhere!”); and the assault on the viewer’s nerves, even though slow to get started (the camera has the jitters well in advance), is more blunt and aggressive, if less potent and lingering. Inasmuch as the ghostly terrorizers are not actual ghosts, their ghostlike behavior raises the issue of their self-conscious mummery. Actual ghosts would be easier to believe, not to mention easier to stomach.