If he could talk to the animals
By Sean O'Connell
Friday, July 8, 2011
For some reason, Kevin James’s pain is his audience’s pleasure. There’s no tree he won’t swing into, no pole he won’t headbutt and no staircase he won’t throw his seemingly indestructible body down in the name of comedy. Box office receipts confirm that his audience laps up this self-inflicted physical abuse. Pratfalls and agonizing tumbles appear to be James’s business, and man, business is booming.
The irony is that James happens to be a naturally affable actor who has created likable lead characters in such one-to-two-note fluff flicks as “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” or “Grown Ups,” so we shouldn’t want to see him get bruised and battered, either emotionally or physically. He’s at his best when his enormous heart and innate vulnerability shine through the slapstick antics screenwriters love to throw at him, which happens to be the case in Frank Coraci’s “Zookeeper.”
The film opens on a beach at sunset, where Griffin Keyes (James) has rented a horse and hired a mariachi band so he can propose to his girlfriend, Stephanie (Leslie Bibb). But she turns him down. Vapid and self-centered, Stephanie can’t get over the fact that Griffin’s a zookeeper.
Years later, Griffin is ready to move past the devastating funk brought on by Stephanie’s rejection when the statuesque beauty slides back into his life. Thankfully, our hero finds motivational support from his sensitive co-worker, Kate (Rosario Dawson), and the animals at Griffin’s zoo.
That’s right. Faster than you can say “Doctor Doolittle,” the beasts in Griffin’s social circle begin to spew advice and dating tips. It turns out animals always could communicate with humans. They just chose to follow a code that prevented such behavior because it tends to freak people out.
Because Griffin’s situation is dire, the zoo animals agree to speak up. Lions voiced by Sylvester Stallone and Cher teach him not to be so cowardly. A bear voiced by Jon Favreau explains the importance of urinating on one’s territory. I half expected Favreau’s bear to swipe dialogue from the actor-director’s classic dating exercise “Swingers,” telling James he was “so money” as he tried to win over “beautiful babies.” Then there’s a monkey voiced by Adam Sandler who suggests Griffin throw his feces at Stephanie — just what you’d expect a monkey voiced by Sandler to say.
Such jokes in the “Zookeeper” script speak directly to the youngest audience members, but writers Nick Bakay, Rock Reuben and James, himself, haven’t left mom and dad out of the mix.
There’s a surreal quality to some of “Zookeeper’s” humor that will fly over the heads of kids as it has parents scratching their own noggins in disbelief. One sequence has Griffin bringing a Nick Nolte-voiced gorilla to a T.G.I. Friday’s for drinks, karaoke and convenient product placement. A choreographed stunt at a wedding reception allows James to take flight using curtains that hang from a ceiling (until he crashes into an ice sculpture and takes out the bride).
Casting carries “Zookeeper” over its roughest patches. The vocal guest stars are inspired. Comedian Joe Rogan brings a mean-spirited edge to the part of Stephanie’s old boyfriend, a decent foil for James’s good-natured character. Dawson is quite comfortable playing the charismatic and fun girl we eventually want our main guy to fall for, a part she fine-tuned in Kevin Smith’s “Clerks 2.” And important lessons about being true to oneself actually penetrate the clattering noises made every time James falls down.
In a summer season where a family’s film options so far have been a lukewarm “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” and the downright disappointing “Cars 2,” Coraci’s “Zookeeper” — yes, it surprises me as much as anyone — ends up being something of, well, a keeper.
Contains some rude and suggestive humor, and language.