RATING |

"Munich."

"Austin Powers."

"Shampoo."

I'll admit I didn't readily detect a throughline there, but after watching "You Don't Mess With the Zohan," I now see that, yes, you can make a movie about an Israeli counter-terrorist legend (with an outrageously bad accent and haircut) who slips away to live peacefully in New York, where he finds employment as a stylist and man-ho for a clientele of elderly Jewish women.

The fellow's name is Zohan, he's played by Adam Sandler, and there are those who will turn away reflexively at the mention of Sandler's name, convinced that the movie is a parade of nonstop juvenalia.

Which it sort of is. If you are not prepared to watch Sandler stick a lecherous tongue in an old woman's ear, or have a doggie-style encounter with Lainie Kazan, this movie is definitely not for you. (How many people are left out there? Three? Two?)

But to be fair, the movie isn't the Sandler, of, say, "Little Nicky." It is juvenile, but it also has a subject and, stunning as it is to report, that subject is the perpetual conflict in the Middle East.

And our very own War on Terror, something that "Zohan" worries may deteriorate into a perpetual conflict - the actual theme of this bizarre movie.

How bizarre? When an Arab cab driver (Rob Schneider!) spots the icognito Zohan in New York, he and a few colleagues decide to impress Hamas by forming a sympathy cell and blowing up Zohan's salon with a homemade bomb.

This errand sends them to a pharmacy for the proper off-the-shelf ingredients but, alas, an elderly counterman misinterprets Schneider's request for a nitrogen compound, and the "terrorists" end up attacking the Zohan with a gooey blob of Neosporin.

If you look past the slapstick crudity of this gag, you realize that the movie has constructed a parody of how real, poorly trained, spontaneously formed sympathy cells in Europe have tended to operate.

Is this in good taste? Certainly not, and somewhere, in the Department of Homeland Security's Ministry of the Straight Face, there's someone reminding us that terrorism is no laughing matter. Ever.

Still, after seven years of handing your shoes to a guy at the airport on the grounds that they might possibly be explosives, it's really hard not to raise your own personal level of snickering to orange, perhaps red.

At some point, the fundamental American urge to make an irresponsible joke can no longer be beaten back or supressed. "Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo" removed the Do Not Open band from the jar of Terror jokes, and "Zohan" reaches in with greedy hands, adding Arab-Israeli jokes as well.

John Turturro turns up as The Phantom, Zohan's Arab nemesis, who comes out of retirement (he's leveraged his terrorist brand to finance the Middle East's number one chain of falafel joints) for a final showdown with Zohan.

It occurs on the Lower East Side, with Zohan backed by Israeli appliance salesmen and The Phantom backed by a corresponding army of cabbies.

It goes too far to say that cooler heads prevail, but the finale does make a plea for an America that welcomes all, on the condition that they check their hatreds at the door.

In this country, when you find yourself in a lather, you simply rinse and repeat.