Kevin James didn't make it this far by being untalented. The seven-year run of The King of Queens, and more importantly the surprise success of Paul Blart Mall Cop, are both a tribute to James's inherent likability, the sense that he really just wants you and your family to have a good time watching him stutter and fall down. There's a good amount of that in Zookeeper, though not nearly enough to rescue this empty and greedy film, or even enough for James to outshine his live animal co-stars. Zookeeper is exactly as loud and sloppy as you expected it to be, livened only occasionally by James and some of his co-stars mugging from inside the muck, hoping you'll still like them once they've cashed this likely lucrative paycheck.
Comfortably occupying his standard blue-collar sad-sack role, James plays zookeeper Griffin, who in the film's first scene is humiliated when his lavish proposal to Stephanie (Leslie Bibb) is cruelly rejected. Five years later he's more than a little hung up on her, and when she hair-flips her way back into his life he's determined not just to win her back, but maybe even leave the "zoo game" and make her materialistic dreams come true. The fact that his gentle co-worker pal is played by Rosario Dawson pretty strongly telegraphs where this romance is headed, but we're still asked to invest in the plot on behalf of the zoo's animals to help Griffin get his dream girl.
For a talking animals movie, a movie sold to kids entirely on that appeal, it sure takes a while for Zookeeper to get the beasts to start chattering. Deciding to break their species-wide code of silence when talking to humans to help Griffin out, the animals start gabbing with familiar voices like Cher, Nick Nolte and Sylvester Stallone-- James's old pal Adam Sandler sticks out in particular as the most obnoxious talking monkey in the long history of cinema's obnoxious monkeys. The animals pretty much supply one joke that's repeated over and over: a bear or a wolf or a frog gives Griffin some crazy advice from nature ("Mark your territory!" "Stick out your gut!") and he applies it in real life-- as if he's a complete idiot incapable of actual rational behavior-- to questionable results. The one exception is the grouchy gorilla, who Griffin is charged with bringing out of his shell, a trick accomplished by taking the beast to TGI Friday's. I'd say you have to see it to believe it, but I'm still not certain I believe it happened anyway.
The few bright spots in Zookeeper, the ones not wrecked by Frank Coraci's slack direction or bottom-of-the-barrel humor, are usually thanks to James's physical comedy skills, or surprisingly enough, Leslie Bibb's unbridled performance as the mean and slightly loony Stephanie. The early proposal scene between them, broad as it may be, is actually funny, and it's remarkable to see Bibb latch on to her generic character and actually draw something unusual out of the stock "wrong girl" role. Given more room to play than her fellow female star Dawson, Bibb brings a performance full of surprise and wit--though still caged, like all those forcibly silenced animals at the Franklin Park Zoo, in a movie that's not nearly up to her level.
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