Iranian-American comedian Maz Jobrani has built his stand-up career by mining Western misconceptions and fears about Middle-Eastern culture. His laugh lines deliver catharsis: They disarm as they unite.
Unfortunately, this potent brand of comedy does not translate well to the screen. In his feature film writing debut, “Jimmy Vestvood: Amerikan Hero,” Jobrani stars as an inept Iranian traffic cop who wins a green card lottery, moving from Tehran to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a private investigator. But while celebrating, he accidentally lights an American flag on fire. Later, after a bout of air turbulence during the flight to the United States, he screams, “Allahu akhbar” (Arabic for “God is great”). Predictably, this outburst lands him in a tiny interrogation room, where a customs official obscenely mispronounces his name, Jamshid Fakhredinpour.
There are a few mild laughs — but many more awkwardly forced moments — as “Jimmy” (the Americanized name he adopts) is propelled through a threadbare plot boasting sight gags, lazy physical comedy and tired wordplay. At one point, his helmet rolls off his motorbike, three times, after parking in front of the mansion of his boss, a wealthy Dick Cheney-like politician named J.P. Monroe (John Heard). In the hands of the Marx brothers, Peter Sellers — or even Sacha Baron Cohen — this could have been a whimsically endearing bit of slapstick. It’s not.
Jobrani, co-writer Amir Ohebsion and director Jonathan Kesselman (“The Hebrew Hammer”) seem to be aiming for a “Pink Panther” vibe of aloof suaveness. But the animated opening credits, in which Jimmy chases a terrorist out the window of a soaring airplane, are as amusing as this flat comedy — which feels long at 84 minutes — gets. Even such edgy flourishes as Monroe mounting the taxidermied head of a liberal in his study, next to other hunting trophies, fail to land as they should. This is probably due to the drawn-out exchange that ensues between Monroe and Jimmy as to whether Monroe really shot the guy. By the time it’s over, we just don’t care.
A twist at the climax underscores Jobrani’s ambition to make a searing political satire, but it’s painful to see how far short he falls of his goal. That the film’s biggest laugh comes when a character is hit on the head by a giant bone shows just how starved “Jimmy Vestvood” is for crisply timed beats. Instead, we’re given gags centering on awkward misinterpretations of such English expressions as “Scratch my back.” (A friend of Jimmy’s family insists that the idiom involves a very different body part.) There are also soft jabs at Fox News, a halfhearted attempt to address same-sex marriage in the Muslim world, and a subplot about Jimmy’s seventh cousin (Sheila Vand) pining for him.
Teetering precariously between satire and base humor, “Jimmy Vestvood” squanders opportunities for both.
Unrated. At the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market. Contains coarse language, mild sexual situations, mature thematic material and slapstick violence. 84 minutes.