After nine seasons starring as a married, overweight parcel delivery driver on the TV sitcom King of Queens, former everyman stand-up comedian Kevin James hit box-office gold in 2009 with his first big-screen starring role in Paul Blart: Mall Cop.
Comparatively speaking, his vocational comedy follow-up Zookeeper is a predictable pile of doo-doo. For starters the movie doesn't even have a decent animal poo joke. (And having visited a zoo this past week with a bunch of kids, I can testify that animal droppings are always funny. Every time.)
Despite negative reviews, Mall Cop won over audiences because James created an oddball character to cheer for - a broadly played hypoglycemic, mustached, Segway-riding single dad who uses specialized knowledge of his workplace to thwart a hostage-taking gang of mall thieves.
James, more buff than blubber this time out, showcases his physical-comedy chops again as the romantically challenged Griffin Keyes, the top animal keeper at the inner-city Franklin Park Zoo. But the slapstick feels self-consciously played, as opposed to something arising naturally from the character.
Which brings us to the main reason Zookeeper stinks (despite the aforementioned lack of poop). While James' mall cop pursued generally noble motives, his zookeeper spends most of his screen time dedicated to a goal we aren't even supposed to get behind - winning back the affections of his gorgeous ex-girlfriend Stephanie (Leslie Bibb). She's a vacuous high-fashion buyer whom we know from the opening scene wants Griffin to change completely.
In any case, he needs some new moves.
Just like James' King of Queens character, Griffin is surrounded by unsolicited advice. The zoo critters reveal their (celebrity) voices - to his initial horror - when they become worried he might ditch them for a job at his soon-to-be-married brother's luxury car dealership. One by one they teach him various, ahem, techniques (stance, marking territory, isolating your prey, etc.). He tries them out at various pre-wedding events without much success until he adopts the behaviour of a predatory boor and wins back Stephanie, who convinces him to take the job with his brother.
Up to this point, the stray laughs have come from semi-improvised lines delivered by the comedians on the voice-talent roster and a small role by reliable scene-stealer Ken Jeong as reptile-keeper Venom.
Then suddenly - and far too late to save the movie - James gets funny, revelling in Griffin's stint as a super-aggressive car salesman. This may not be his character's true calling, but it sure seems like James'. It's clear from the start that zoo veterinarian Kate (Rosario Dawson) is a much more suitable mate for Griffin. So we can't even cheer for the talking animals because they're abetting Griffin in his misguided romantic quest (despite the fact that they want it to fail so he will stay on as zookeeper. Don't ask - it doesn't make sense)
Sure, this movie is pure fantasy but as family fare it has several elements that many will find irresponsible - most notably the male silverback gorilla Bernie (Nick Nolte), who has been kept for years in a solitary confinement pit for a violent act he didn't commit.
Unfortunately, nobody had the good sense to call the comedy authorities and shut this Zookeeper down.
- Directed by Frank Coraci
- Screenplay by Nick Bakay, Rock Reuben, Kevin James, Jay Scherick and David Ronn
- Starring Kevin James, Rosario Dawson, Leslie Bibb, Ken Jeong and the voices of Nick Nolte, Adam Sandler, Cher and Sylvester Stallone
- Classification: G
Special to The Globe and Mail
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