Silver Screen: Zookeeper *

Silver Screen: Zookeeper  *
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Silver Screen: Zookeeper *
Bryan Miller

The remarkable thing about the Kevin James vehicle Zookeeper is that it nimbly steps past all the obvious pitfalls and fetid cliché s of a movie with such a cutesy premise: James is a lovelorn zookeeper who discovers the animals in his care can speak, and he turns to them for romantic advice. It's not so much what the movie does, it's what it doesn't do: There aren't a lot of superfluous celebrity voices, hyper-exaggerated pratfalls, and poop jokes.

Nah, I'm just screwing with you. It's got all those things, and in rare abundance. Zookeeper is exactly the unambitious, by-the-numbers family comedy schtick it looks like, only worse.

Griffin is James's standard lovable schlub character, mostly defined by his dopey innocence. He's the ideal zookeeper, taking care of the various animals in the Franklin Park Zoo. He's still lovestruck by his shallow ex-girlfriend (Leslie Bibb), who hates his low-paying, animal-loving job and wants him to do something flashier and more exciting, like selling cars. (Now I'm not kidding). When Griffin decides to quit the zoo to convince her to give him another shot, the animals reveal to him that not only can they talk, but they talk like celebrities engaging in wacky PG-rated banter. Thus they begin imbuing him with the mating secrets of the wild, which results in him peeing in potted plants, roaring at romantic rivals, and bike racing with Joe Rogan.

What would it look like if Kevin James walked past two giant, ornate ice sculptures and didn't come crashing through them? Zookeeper is not the kind of movie that has any intention of letting you find out, projecting broad gags early and then playing them out as obviously and loudly as possible. Sure, this is a family comedy, but a mild tone and genteel language don't necessitate the laziest possible writing-- from five credited screenwriters, no less, two of whom, Jay Scherick and David Ronn, penned the disastrous I Spy remake, the notorious Norbit, and the forthcoming, certain-to-be-a-classic live-action Smurfs movie.

At some point the blandness and stupidity collide to strange effects. Director and Adam Sandler Comedy Factory foreman Frank Coraci wants to make sure, lest there be any doubt, that we utterly despise Bibb's mean girlfriend character, but the effort to make her unlikeable is so over the top that it's hard not to start hating Griffin for being attracted to her in the first place. Rosario Dawson, the kindly, extra-sexy fellow zookeeper who appreciates Griffin for who he is, will inevitably become his romantic interest, but the fact that Griffin consistently ignores her is somewhere between baffling and maddening.

James, a charming enough presence on TV, has amassed one of the worst filmographies of any box-office star (I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Grownups, The Dilemma), and he doesn't get much help turning that around here from his costars, be they people, animals, or the disembodied voices of the rich and famous. Dawson has nothing to do but stand around in the background until it's time to be reminded how pretty she is (answer: very), while Donnie Wahlberg, playing a villainous fellow zookeeper, evinces all the livewire charisma of a much less charismatic Mark Wahlberg. Ken Jeong also shows up with an underbaked and totally superfluous turn as a reptile specialist named Venom, in accordance with the Ken Jeong Supporting Character Act of 2009, which states that at least thirty-five percent of all comedies in America must feature Ken Jeong.

The celebrity voice cast is less than impressive. Sylvester Stallone, famed for his comic timing and diction, slurs his way through his performance as a lion cowed by a belittling mate, played in a sensitive, pleading whine by Cher. Judd Apatow does a nice job as a neurotic elephant, while Adam Sandler holds down the poop-joke fort as a monkey.

But a special hellish fate awaits Nick Nolte, the troubled actor whose entire career has led to this moment in which he plays a surly silverback gorilla who lusts for TGI Friday’s. In the movie's most outright revolting scene-- a fit of product placement that shames even the two-and-a-half-hour-long commercial that is Transformers: Dark of the Moon-- James and the Nolte-voiced gorilla have what appears to be the time of their lives drinking, dancing, and singing their way through the most rollicking chain-restaurant location since the cast of Glee had a cast party at Applebee's. When Nolte, providing the speech for a guy in an unconvincing gorilla suit, is forced to directly pimp Fridays' zucchini fries, I finally understood the haunted and desperate look of his eyes in that infamous mugshot. This is what it's come to.