You Don't Mess With the Zohan

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Opens: Friday, June 6 (Columbia) 

As a commando-turned-hairdresser with superheroic strength and a supersized crotch, Adam Sandler gets the Israeli accent and the disco swagger just right. Laughs are less of a sure thing in "You Don't Mess With the Zohan," but the comedy star's legions of fans will welcome the cheerfully crude proceedings as a return to silliness after several earnest, lower-key character turns. The melange of Middle East diplomacy, action absurdity, sexual healing and, when in doubt, hummus, wavers between muscular and middling. It's a surefire hit.

"Zohan" marks Sandler's first official big-screen collaboration with Judd Apatow, who had uncredited writing duties on "The Wedding Singer"; here they're co-scripters with longtime Sandler collaborator Robert Smigel. Tempering broad mischief with "why can't we all just get along" decency, the screenplay strikes a horndog posture with an utter lack of cynicism. Dennis Dugan, directing his fourth Sandler feature, choreographs the shenanigans with energy but doesn't avoid dead spots or jokes that fall flat. What keeps the audience engaged is the obvious glee Sandler and the rest of the cast bring to their ludicrous yet grounded roles.

A fine match for the Zohan is John Turturro's Phantom, an unstoppable Palestinian agent and fast-food entrepreneur. But after these two unlikely warriors face off yet again, Zohan, who has grown tired of fighting, fakes his own death and flees to New York in order to realize his hairstyling dream. Armed with a photo album of 1987 Paul Mitchell 'dos, he reinvents himself as Scrappy Coco and lands a job in a salon run by Palestinian beauty Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui). Before long, he's providing the elderly female clientele with the kind of full-service treatment that makes Warren Beatty's "Shampoo" hairdresser look like a prude.

As the adolescent philosophy of "Zohan" would have it, horniness can save the world. In the quasi-Old World neighborhood where Arab and Israeli shop owners coexist (nice work by production designer Perry Andelin Blake, as are his convincingly lived-in New York apartments), when the men argue politics, they're in easy accord on the desirability of politicos' wives (and Hillary). But peace is not quite within reach when a Palestinian cabbie (Rob Schneider) with a grudge or two is hot on Zohan's trail, and a neighborhood-destroying developer (Michael Buffer) will stoop very low to clear the way for his next megamall. Before its final explosion of lunacy, the film takes a well-placed dig at homegrown U.S. terrorists of the redneck variety.

The melting-pot production's bounty of cameos includes John McEnroe, Chris Rock and George Takei, with some (Mariah Carey, Henry Winkler) receiving too much screen time for far-too-little payoff. As one of the Zohan's special friends, the always game Lainie Kazan is a standout, as is Nick Swardson as her horrified son. Daoud Heidami shines as a friend who aids and abets the cluelessly plotting Schneider.

Amid the over-the-top stunts and a buff Sandler's spot-on strutting, there's an improvisational looseness to some of the scenes that partly compensates for tired jokes about hummus as the great equalizer. Given the comedy hot shots involved, though, "Zohan" should have landed more laughs.

Production: Columbia presents in association with Relativity Media a Happy Madison production; Cast: Adam Sandler, John Turturro, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Rob Schneider; Director: Dennis Dugan; Screenwriter: Adam Sandler, Robert Smigel, Judd Apatow; Executive producer: Barry Bernardi, Robert Smigel; Producers: Adam Sandler, Jack Giarraputo. Director of photography: Michael Barrett; Production designer: Perry Andelin Blake; Music: Rupert Gregson-Williams; Co-producer: Kevin Grady; Costume designer: Ellen Lutter; Editor: Tom Costain; Rated PG-13, 113 minutes.

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