Comedy being an intensely subjective thing, it doesn't really do for me to declare that You Don't Mess with the Zohan isn't a funny movie and leave for greener pastures. At the very least, the girl sitting in the theater behind me and to the left clearly thought it was extremely funny, and I'd be a damnable liar if I said that I never giggled once, or even just a few times. That's enough, I guess, to say that the film exceeds expectations; for who over the age of thirteen would have had the most modest of hopes for a film where Adam Sandler plays a Mossad agent who fakes his own death to start a new life as a New York hairdresser?

In a script he co-wrote with Robert Smigel and Judd Apatow - so all in all, that's at least 1.5 decent screenwriters, right? Maybe even 1.75? - Sandler is Zohan Dvir, the greatest counter-terrorist agent in the Israeli military, a man of incredible superhuman skills. Broadly speaking, the film is at its best in the early stages, before the plot even revs up, when the filmmakers are introducing us to the power that is the Zohan, in a spring-break sequence that is quite silly but quite happy and self-possessed in its silliness, enough so that it comes across as upbeat absurdity and not gaudy absurdity, a balancing act that Sandler's films don't always carry off properly. From his ability to block out even the most lacerating pain to his unheard of skill at sexually pleasing every women who crosses his path, the screenwriters and director Dennis Dugan, not a man usually noted for his delicate touch and wit, sketch the general framework of Zohan's character and legend in punch gags that aren't groundbreaking, but are lively and silly (there's that word again!), and charming enough that it's rather harder not to laugh.

By the time Zohan has pretended to die at the hands of notorious Palestinian terrorist The Phantom (John Turturro), the film has already begun to show the flaw that we can expect to drag the movie into the dirt, and it's not very far into Zohan's American adventure that our suspicions are confirmed: there are really only four jokes in the movie, and each of them goes from being pleasantly goofy to positively leaden as the film's needlessly protracted 113-minute running time unspools and unspools. To wit: Zohan can do amazing physical acts with the exertion you or I might spend on cracking our knuckles, Israeli men are sexual dynamos with large genitalia, tough guys who want to be hairdressers have to prove that they aren't gay, and Middle-Easterners sure are weird! There's some overlap between those regions, and the last covers a broad array of "Other" jokes: Israelis sure like hummus, Israelis sure like Israeli soda, only disco and hacky-sack and Mariah Carey can united the Israeli and the Arab. (There's also the reliable old chestnut about how hysterical it is when old women have sex drives, and how their grown children cannot stand thinking about it).

Conceptually, I suppose the filmmakers were hoping to be provocative and saucy with their politically-incorrect laundry list of stereotypes about both Israelis and Muslims, for a significant chunk of the film's comedy is given over to mining those stereotypes for comic gold - in particular, the "strange food from Israel" gags seem to fill up about 40% of the movie's running time. To be completely honest, I don't feel inclined to indulge them. It's obvious that the screenplay's naughty little shocks are meant to get us thinking that hey, if we can joke about the Israel-Palestine conflict, maybe we'll figure out that both sides are made up of basically good, messed-up folks with the hardliners controlling the politics, because it's not that serious, people just try to build it up because they're just haters. It's not terribly hard to disagree with that idea, but that's my problem: using obnoxious stereotypes is a pretty big tool, and better used for deeper thoughts than, "those Arabs and Jews, they're really a lot more similar than they are different." Absent that, what we've got left are snickering 12-year-olds who are terribly excited with themselves for saying things that are going to get the grown-ups all freaked out. And the only sane response to that is to ignore the tiny provocateurs.

(Then again, the customary audience for an Adam Sandler vehicle and the customary audience for geopolitical theory almost certainly don't overlap very much, so maybe the point is to slide the "we're all the same" theme in under cover of that "har har! Furriners!" humor. But this is an idea better left unpursued by myself).

The film's pedagogical intent and representational politics are, at any rate, secondary to its value as a comedy. Or at least they should be. And that brings me back to my first point: though the opening fifteen or twenty minutes are impossibly good for a Sandler/Dugan film, You Don't Mess with the Zohan suffers greatly from diminished returns as it recycles all of its gags for the third, fourth, tenth time. There's a distinct "SNL movie" vibe throughout, and not just because of Sandler and Smigel's presence. Zohan feels like a character from a sketch comedy, who we see once a week to do his trademark schtick: crazy action moves, seduce an old lady, drink a bottle of that bubbly yellow soda. Stretch that out to two hours, without increasing his arsenal of gags, and the movie feels repetitive and padded, even without the benefit of the character predating the feature.

For all that, Zohan is less of a chore to sit through than most of Sandler's movies, especially the later, horrible ones. The gags at least start off funny and are about more than the mere fact that Sandler can make terrible braying noises with his mouth, the myriad cameos are generally enjoyable even when they're frighteningly random, and there's at least an outside chance that Zohan won't leave you stupider than when you came in. Slim praise, but if I were a Sandler fan (God forbid), I doubt I'd have much problem enjoying this one.