'Zookeeper': Keep Out
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
I "get" Kevin James. He's Tom Arnold with competence. And minus the Midwestern working-redneck aura of threat, and plus a kind of benign urban outer-borough doughiness. He's eminently unthreatening and falls down well. His lack of edge and bite cannot be overemphasized. The guy makes Lou Costello look like Robert Schimmel in the edge department, really. And that's without allowing for temporal changes in comedy standards. In his place, the former stand-up comedian can be tolerable. Said place being a co-lead in a sitcom, or second or third banana in an ensemble comedy. And I said "tolerable." Let's not push our luck here.
Even with the expectations bar lowered to the criterion Mr. James and his work represent, it is still rather surprising just how godawful "Zookeeper" is. Directed by Frank Coraci, who also supervised "The Wedding Singer" and a couple of other deathless star vehicles for James' crony and patron Adam Sandler, from a script by James and, believe it or not, four other screenwriters, "Zookeeper" weds "Hitch" to "Dr. Dolittle," and, no, the distinction here between the crap Rex Harrison musical and the crap Eddie Murphy comedy is, for the purpose of this review, meaningless. As for "Hitch," you may remember James was rather tolerable in that film in, yes, the second-banana role of the overweight schlubby guy who gets dating and relationship advice from the suave Will Smith.
So here James' titular zookeeper Griffin is the overweight schlubby guy again, only now he's getting relationship and dating advice from his charges, that is, zoo animals. Zoo animals who, for reasons I personally found less than entirely compelling, decide to discard a no-doubt centuries-old "code" and reveal to Griffin that they can in fact talk like humans, and sort of reason like them as well. Ha ha ha. These animals are visually portrayed by some combinations of the genuine articles and CGI replicas, and are voiced by an impressive, not to say motley, array of names: Sylvester Stallone's a macho lion; Cher is his sage and sarcastic mate; Nick Nolte's a bummed-out gorilla. Jon Favreau and Faizon Love do a pair of bears who might be gay (but the movie doesn't push that conceit too far, for what ought to be obvious reasons). One can understand why Sandler, doing a cross between "Pootie Tang"-mode Chris Rock and Louis Prima, skates on a "I dare you to be offended" surface voicing a feisty monkey, but I'm still puzzled why Maya Rudolph opted for a Wanda Sykes impersonation as a giraffe.
I know what you're thinking: With all those unusual talents doing the voice work, just how bad can the thing be, really? Well, between the plot's unspeakably predictable banality and the relentless inanity of the various comedy set pieces, the absolute worst of which involve Griffin trying to show up his shallow ex and her petulant egomaniacal new boyfriend (and falling either down, or into things a lot in the process), sitting through "Zookeeper" is a literally excruciating experience. (About the predictable plot, here's the short version of a too-long story: Griffin's in love with, and is initially rejected by, a shallow materialistic woman whom the beasts then try to help him get back, and all the while the woman he's really meant to be with works right alongside him at the zoo, by golly.) There's one scene in which a snotty little kid falls into the bear pit, and Griffin comes to the rescue, because that's what he does. "Any other day and that kid woulda been lunch," one of the bears confides to Griffin. So wait a minute, one might think at this point. So we're expected to believe that animals can speak and reason like humans, but they'll still maul a human child to death because ... that's what's expected of them? They like to do it? What? I mean, really, I know it's only a movie, but is it too much to ask that it stay at least vaguely fixed to a particular track of logic? I understand such things shouldn't necessarily stand in the way of a great line, but I ask you: Is the above-cited a great line? No, it is not. And such is the type of material the film veritably thrives on.
I shan't dwell too much, either, on that fact that poor Leslie Bibb, as the shallow materialistic girl, seems to be channeling Bridgette Wilson-Sampras for some strange reason. In any event, I hope she herself finds a nice tennis player, and soon. To say that Rosario Dawson deserves better than her role as James' cat's paw and eventual I'm-sure-you-can-guess is to overstate the obvious. (Same goes for observing that the filmmakers no doubt consider themselves daringly progressive for romantically pairing James with an actress of Afro-Cuban lineage.) I feel honor-bound to warn anyone out there who unironically reveres a '70s rock classic in which the singer sees his Mary Ann walking away to, if he or she decides to ignore the other advice proffered in this notice, that he or she should leave well before the end credits so as to avoid a horrific sullying of said song. Speaking of rock analogies, Kevin James is Uncle Kracker to Adam Sandler's Kid Rock. There. And did I mention Ken Jeong's in this? In case you're not sick of him yet, right?
Also: If a worse movie is released this year, I hope I don't have to see it.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.