Using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a backdrop doesn't come close to capturing the surreal mix of cartoonish comedy, "Give peace a chance" platitudes, puzzling cameos and big-penis jokes that add up to not much in Adam Sandler's latest outing as star/producer/co-writer.

Using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a backdrop doesn’t come close to capturing the surreal mix of cartoonish comedy, “Give peace a chance” platitudes, puzzling cameos and big-penis jokes that add up to not much in Adam Sandler’s latest outing as star/producer/co-writer. The off-the-wall comedy of Robert Smigel and Judd Apatow leaves a mark on the script, but it would require a talent of Peter Sellers’ magnitude to conquer this material, and he’s not around. Box office should be initially brisk, courtesy of the Sandler faithful, but beyond that, “Zohan” is a mess and then some.

The movie represents Sandler’s fourth collaboration with director Dennis Dugan, who has seemingly stayed within the comic’s orbit (from “Big Daddy” and “Happy Gilmore” to the more recent “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry”) by directing the star and his posse sparingly, bordering on not at all. As evidence, look no further than Rob Schneider’s turn as a Palestinian cab driver with a lingering grudge against the title character — his most relentlessly unfunny appearance under heavy makeup since his uncredited role in “Chuck & Larry” as an Asian wedding coordinator.

Questions of insensitivity toward Arabs — played, as most of them are, by non-Arabs — will surely arise, though the pic’s tone is so over the top as to somewhat diminish the impact. The take-away message, moreover, is a rather childlike plea for Arabs and Israelis to all just get along, with the real bad guy being an evil U.S. real-estate developer, played (incongruously, along with much else in the film) by ring announcer Michael Buffer.

Sandler buffed up for the part of Zohan, a near-indestructible Israeli super-spy, but there’s still heavy use of body doubles during his early exploits, in which he pursues a diabolical Palestinian terrorist, the Phantom (John Turturro). In the midst of a grenade-batting exchange, Zohan fakes his own death so he can flee to America and pursue his true passion — cutting and styling hair.

Landing in New York, Zohan struggles to find work. Disappointed in his dream of working at Paul Mitchell’s salon, he finally gets his chance from a Palestinian salon owner (“Entourage’s” Emmanuelle Chriqui) in an ethnic neighborhood where Israeli electronics stores (with names like “Going Out of Business”) uneasily coexist with Palestinian-owned shops.

Zohan’s barbering career provides the movie’s one truly funny — albeit wildly broad — section, as he earns a loyal clientele among elderly women by servicing them in a variety of ways. It’s worth noting that in this year of copious male nudity, “Don’t Mess With the Zohan” garners a friendly PG-13 rating despite innumerable gags about Zohan’s enormous package, which is conspicuous even when sheathed.

In terms of actual laughs, though, the movie itself is pretty flaccid, experiencing too many long arid stretches resembling Zohan’s home turf. Burdened with a premise better suited to a “Saturday Night Live” sketch — the bad-ass spy who really wants to be a stylist — the writers pad things out by recycling bits about hummus, immigrant Israeli and Arabs’ fondness for bargaining, and randy old women. Alas, those efforts, and a decibel level bordering on abusive, can’t obscure the lack of originality and pacing.

Several comedy and celebrity figures drop in along the way, but none are given much to do. As for Sandler, his phlegmy Israeli accent is fleetingly amusing but, like most everything else, grows tedious long before “Zohan” reaches its merciful end. Chriqui, in fact, plays perhaps the one character to emerge unscathed and, given the predominantly young-male audience and her flattering wardrobe, should at minimum bolster her position on Maxim-type “hot” lists.

Whatever controversy the theme engenders (and it’s hard to imagine Arab-American advocacy groups not howling a little), “Zohan” is too silly to justify genuine anger. The more pressing thought as the movie drags on, rather, is an amended version of Buffer’s signature boxing bellow, as in, “Let’s get ready to exit!”

You Don't Mess With the Zohan

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation, in association with Relativity Media, of a Happy Madison production. Produced by Adam Sandler, Jack Giarraputo. Executive producers, Barry Bernardi, Robert Smigel. Co-producer, Kevin Grady. Directed by Dennis Dugan. Screenplay, Adam Sandler, Robert Smigel, Judd Apatow.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Michael Barrett; editor, Tom Costain; music, Rupert Gregson-Williams; music supervisors, Michael Dilbeck, Brooks Arthur; production designer, Perry Andelin Blake; art directors, Alan Au, John Collins; set decorator, Ron Reiss; costume designer, Ellen Lutter; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Gary C. Bourgeois, Greg Orloff; supervising sound editors, Elmo Weber, Russ Farmarco; visual effects supervisor, Ryan Tudhope; associate producers, Aldric La'auli Porter, Daryl Kass, Judit Maull; assistant director, Porter; casting, Randi Hiller, Sarah Halley Finn. Reviewed at Grauman's Chinese Theater, Los Angeles, May 28, 2008. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 113 MIN.

With

Zohan - Adam Sandler Phantom - John Turturro Dalia - Emmanuelle Chriqui Michael - Nick Swardson Gail - Lainie Kazan Oori - Ido Mosseri Salim - Rob Schneider James - Dave Matthews Walbridge - Michael Buffer
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