REVIEW: Even for a Talking-Animal Movie, Zookeeper Hits a New Low
A possible calculus for Kevin James films: The more pathetic his typically schlubby, confidence-challenged character, the bigger the cash-grabbing cojones behind the production. Consider the audacity of calling Zookeeper -- James's latest interminable march through the crudest possible gestures toward character, conceit, and comedy -- a movie. This "story" of a middle-aged zookeeper (James) trying to win back his status-obsessed ex (Leslie Bibb) with the help of the cheerful inmates at his animal prison -- while his gorgeous, soulful co-worker (Rosario Dawson) looks on -- pushes past banality and onto the surreal plane being staked out by bad movies that are bad in a new and genuinely dispiriting way.
Perhaps it's the difference between formula and algorithm. Though the directing is credited to Adam Sandler crony Frank Coraci (Click, The Waterboy) and the writing to five men (including James), Zookeeper feels like the kind of thing that could have issued from the motherboard of Deep Blue's Hollywood nephew, Shallow Green. If there was human care involved, Sandler's Happy Madison production company managed to do its signature detailing job to remove it, for maximum ease of consumption. And so Zookeeper plays like an amalgam of tics and bulging clichés, arranged in a vague narrative order and stretched out to an unconscionable 104 minutes. Watching it I was filled with an increasingly familiar panic: Forget the digital debate; what will happen to movies when statisticians start running studios and scripts are generated in computer sorting programs?
As Griffin Keyes, James is the same guy he has played in Hitch, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, and most recently The Dilemma, which means he's not just a type but a precisely reproduced assemblage of set pieces from those movies. In an effort to give him the confidence to win back the vapid fashionista who dumped him in mid-marriage proposal five years earlier, two grizzlies (voiced by Jon Favreau and Faizon Love) teach Griffin how to project confidence, recalling the "teach whitey to dance" scene in Hitch. James's limited gifts as a physical comedian -- basically, he's fat -- are extracted to identical effect as they were in Blart; lots of wedging, sweating, and squirming around on the ground like an overturned turtle. And when he ultimately leaves his post at the zoo to join his brother's car dealership -- in order to keep his awful girlfriend in awful, high modernist furniture -- Griffin gets behind the wheel of a six-figure hot rod, per The Dilemma, and does some macho vamping for the camera.
It's hard to tell who this film is targeting -- though it is rated PG, the over-determined cuteness suggests the wee small ones -- but the stream of people hurrying out of the screening I attended captured every demographic. The talking animals, though less tough to look at than those in Marmaduke, are murder on the ears: Maya Rudolph as a neurotic giraffe and Sandler voicing a monkey could take the paint off of a Buick. Judd Apatow is a doleful elephant with the always-hilarious eating issues. Don Rickles appears briefly in the form of a bullfrog. And Sylvester Stallone and Cher play a pair of squabbling lions. Nick Nolte brings his Richter-scale rumble to Bernie, an abused gorilla who has turned his face to the wall. Doting on Bernie is Griffin's special project, but the film's attempt at addressing the inherent barbarism of keeping wild animals in cages is so convoluted (Bernie's big dream is to check out a TGI-Fridays; Donnie Wahlberg plays his sadistic nemesis) they would have been better off pretending that zoos are big happy families for your favorite cartoon characters. Not sure this week's other talking animal film, Project Nim, could ask for a more perversely apposite counterpart.
Joe Rogan shows up as a romantic rival, arriving just as the direction moves from hopelessly inept to astoundingly bad. Bibb's beauty -- so archetypal that rather than reading pretty her features seem to spell out the word -- works well for her ridiculously fatuous character, and Dawson's warmth preserves most of her dignity, excepting a sub-yogurt commercial dance sequence. There's a late-breaking epiphany, a race to the airport, a credits sing-along to "More Than a Feeling," outtakes, and a missed opportunity for a clutch King Kong reference, because this is the kind of film that refers only to itself, or films exactly like it, and the box office numbers behind them. An inbred genetic chain is forming between them, and the experience of watching a film like Zookeeper is a lot like feeling your wrists and neck being bound to the chair by its links. "That's just the captivity talking," a black crow voiced by Jim Breuer taunts in one of his fly-by visits from the free world. Nevermore, I thought to myself. Nevermore.