The Zookeeper

Frank Coraci

BY Will SloanPublished Jul 7, 2011

More than those any of his contemporaries in the Happy Madison stable (Schneider, Spade, king poo-bah Sandler), Kevin James's screen persona is defined by his average-Joe affability. How strange, then, that his star vehicles should rely so heavily on sadness, suffering, cruelty and humiliation.

Sure, James's girth makes it a foregone conclusion that he will suffer about as many elaborate and painful pratfalls as your average Jackie Chan character, but remember Paul Blart: Mall Cop, a light-hearted comedy about a depressed, laughingstock rent-a-cop whose ex-wife used him only as a means to obtain citizenship? Or The Dilemma, in which his wife cheated on him, while he himself covertly patronized a rub-and-tug?

The Zookeeper opens with Griffin (James) being rejected by his girlfriend (Leslie Bibb) during a marriage proposal because she thinks his job at the zoo is lame. Five years later, he's still holding a torch for her and devises a scheme to win back her affections by having a fetching co-worker (Rosario Dawson) pose as his date. He succeeds through a combination of deceit and casual cruelty, only to ditch the lady in the most humiliating way possible, because, as you might have guessed by the fact that his co-worker is played by Rosario Dawson, there is another pretty woman after his heart.

Oh, and did I mention that when everybody leaves the zoo at night the animals talk (with the voices of Sylvester Stallone, Nick Nolte, Adam Sandler, et al.), and that they coach our hero on his love life? "It's Paul Blart meets Hitch meets Night at the Museum," as someone surely must have said at the pitch meeting.

The Zookeeper is unsavoury and kind of sad; it's also not very funny, unless you think it's funny when two bears tell Kevin James how to walk, and then he walks around growling like a bear until, uh oh, a bunch of people walk past him at this inopportune moment, hey-oh. There are also certain structural flaws: the film can't decide if it wants to be a family romp about talking animals or a comedy-of-awkwardness for Happy Madison fans, so it combines both in an ungainly package. The second half, where Griffin briefly takes a job as a car salesman, only to long for the zoo, is so poorly handled that it's impossible to tell how much time has passed between any two scenes.

Much of The Zookeeper makes no sense at all. When, at a wedding, Griffin abruptly adopts an alpha-male persona and instructs his ex-girlfriend to fetch him desert, this is literally all it takes for her to fall back in love with him, never mind that director Frank Coraci also wants to depict James's tough-guy aggressiveness as comically unconvincing.

There are many scenes where the animals ineptly advise Griffin on the ways of seduction, but why would Griffin actually follow their advice by, for example, peeing on a plant in a restaurant? Even a movie about talking animals giving Kevin James relationship advice needs internal logic. (Maybe a more entertaining black comedy could have been made about a man who takes relationship advice from talking animals, only to face nothing but disastrous consequences.)

The Zookeeper is unfunny and unpleasant, but more than that, it's incompetent. I never thought I'd say this, but: The Zookeeper, you are no Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

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