Jul 10, 2011
By Sean O. Murphy
The comedy in “Zookeeper” is as broad as an elephant’s backside, but a mostly clean and well-intentioned story allows Kevin James to mark his territory without offending the family-friendly crowd too often.
Griffin Keyes (James) is the sort of affable everyman that you can’t help but pull for, no matter how unlikely he seems as a love interest for the competent and beautiful Kate (Rosario Dawson) or, for that matter, the shallow and selfish Stephanie (Leslie Bibb), who is Griffin’s worst break up ever. Griffin is a likable schlub who is sweet and committed to the animals he cares for as a zookeeper until his beautiful but superficial ex-fiancée returns to town and convinces him to take a job at his brother’s high-end car dealership.
The animals decide they love their keeper enough to break the cardinal animal rule and talk (yes…talk!) him out of leaving the zoo. Naturally the critters have a plan complete with mating tips to help him land the woman who wants him to leave his career of animal keeping. In the meantime, Kate begins to care for her zero-to-hero coworker and finds herself involved in the sort of manipulations that seem to work only in the silliest of romantic comedies.
Kevin James has this role down by now after playing it in two television sitcoms and at least three motion pictures. He makes a great sidekick for Ray Romano on TV and Adam Sandler or Will Smith on the big screen. In fact, you might say he graduated from the same “comic sidekick school” as Jeremy Piven and Jason Alexander. I hope he is not always remembered as Paul Blart or Griffin Keyes, as there seems to be more potential in his unkempt but curiously attractive character than has been seen so far. This may be his best leading role yet, but I hope it is not the best we get to see him in his career.
In my time as a critic and reluctant fan of romantic comedies, I have seen a lot of unrealistic stretches of reality but “Zookeeper” wants us to believe one of the wildest ones yet. No, I am not talking about the fact that the animal’s can talk (haven’t we all suspected that our pets are sharing witty one-liners after we exit the room?) but rather that Kevin James is the love interest of not one (but two) beautiful women who seem to possess all of their faculties and eyesight. I could barely believe this when James was the “King of Queens,” but to ask us to buy it again is just too much.
Still I believe many women would still choose James over the king of douche-baggery that is his cheap romantic rival, Gale (Joe Rogan, and I’m a fan of the man!), so there is that much to add weight to the ladies’ odd attraction to a pudgy guy who prefers to hang out with animals over people.
The romantic comedy angle didn’t work for me so well so I found myself playing the fun parlor game of guess the celebrity voices. There is Sly Stallone as the lion and Cher as his lioness. Judd Apatow plays as a neurotic elephant with an eating disorder that for some reason I was mistakenly convinced was voiced by “Spin City” actor, Richard Kind. I was also a little off wavering between Adam Sandler doing Al Pacino or Gilbert Godfried’s imitations as the monkey. I am tossing out some names that you can connect with zoo animals yourself when you see the film: Jim Breur, Jon Favreau, Maya Rudolph and Don Rickles.
My favorite was Nick Nolte as the sullen and misunderstood guerilla whose subplot almost steals the show. I buy the “bromance” between Nolte and James more than the attraction from either of the romantic love interests. Not that you would have to be Nick Nolte-level crazy to like Kevin James. It’s just that so far James has more appeal in buddy roles than in movie leading men. Maybe someday soon someone will write him the ultimate buddy comedy role or cast him with a believable romantic costar. I would rave for that movie; talking animals are optional.