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It’s a mess, but ‘Zohan’ has ambitions

Adam Sandler comedy not afraid to go for laughs in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Coming on the heels of the superior “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay,” the new Adam Sandler vehicle “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan” confirms that Hollywood comedies have moved past the “too soon” phase and are now ready to lampoon global politics after 9/11. And while Sandler and his usual directorial accomplice Dennis Dugan are as oafish and obvious as ever, the screenwriting contributions of Robert Smigel (“TV Funhouse”) and Judd Apatow at least give “Zohan” a much-needed dose of chutzpah.

Sandler stars as Zohan, a super-deadly Mossad agent whose specialty is taking out Palestinian terrorists. But when he’s not stopping bullets with his nostrils, he has a dream — to leave conflict behind, move to New York City, and do ladies’ hair. (Also, to do ladies, specifically of the older, larger variety.) His parents accuse him of being a “fageleh,” but he refuses to be thwarted, so Zohan fakes his death in a battle with his arch-nemesis, The Phantom (John Turturro), and makes his dream come true.

In no time, he’s gotten a job at a salon owned by Palestinian Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui), gets lessons in how to cut hair by Claude (the always-hilarious Alec Mapa), and services ladies of a certain age (including Lainie Kazan and Charlotte Rae) to his heart’s content.

Naturally, things get complicated. A Palestinian cabbie (Rob Schneider, who one day will be called upon to give Sandler one or both kidneys in return for his continuing employment) has beef with Zohan from the old country. An unscrupulous land developer hopes to take over the block by setting the Israeli and Palestinian business owners against each other, leading to a hacky-sack tournament designed to distract the merchants from the fact that a band of Mel Gibson–loving racist rednecks (led by Dave Matthews) are setting out to blow up the businesses while disguised in those keffiyeh scarves that recently made Dunkin’ Donuts so nervous.

So once again, we’re in Sandler’s cloud cuckoo-land, where current events, ethnic differences and alternative sexualities are all fodder for silliness. Admittedly, “Zohan” is a step up from last summer’s “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry,” but honestly, what wouldn’t be?

Nonetheless, this new movie’s scattershot approach to humor means that at least a few comedic targets are hit, whether it’s gags about Zohan’s prodigious manhood (which he often stuffs into tight pants), sexy senior citizens, bigotry, Judaism or the conflict in the Middle East. Sandler comes off as less than grating than usual, and Kazan and Sandler regular Nick Swardson reliably steal every scene that’s not nailed down.

But really — 113 minutes? Some judicious trimming might have made the jokes’ hit-to-miss ratio way more tolerable.

Director Dugan, meanwhile, retains his ability to make any movie look like B-level syndicated television, even managing to shoot Mariah Carey (who turns up to sing the national anthem at the hacky-sack tournament) in an unflattering light.

One could say that Sandler’s devotion to his friends is admirable, but when that translates to yet another movie featuring Dugan’s direction and an appearance by Rob Schneider, the star’s magnanimity isn’t doing audiences any favors.