By Matt Brunson
DIRECTED BY Frank Coraci
STARS Kevin James, Rosario Dawson
Leave it to Zoolander to have the foresight to succinctly sum up Zookeeper. In that 2001 comedy, Owen Wilson's Hansel blares, "Taste my pain, bitch!" a declaration that Kevin James was directing at me for the duration of this ghastly film's 100 minutes.
I'm sure that taste will still be lingering in my mouth in December, when it's time to draw up the year-end "10 Worst" list. For now, I'm reduced to shedding a tear over our animal friends: Between this and Mr. Popper's Penguins, they're having an especially bad summer, although their humiliation can't compare to the torture inflicted on parents forced to take their young kids to see this. Then again, James' last solo starring vehicle, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, made a ridiculous $146 million stateside, so it's obvious his appeal extends beyond the small fry.
Children will certainly take to the notion of talking animals. After being jilted by his girlfriend Stephanie (Leslie Bibb), Griffin (James) spends the next five years burying himself in his work at the zoo, where he's appreciated by everyone especially co-worker Kate (Rosario Dawson) for his sensitive and caring nature with the animals. But when Stephanie unexpectedly reenters his life, he hopes to win her back. Breaking their code of silence, the zoo animals reveal to Griffin that all creatures can talk but don't, because humans couldn't handle it. Yet it's clear to these critters that Griffin needs all the help he can get, so they teach him how to woo Stephanie. Joe the lion (voiced by Sylvester Stallone) insists he must be strong and confront her other suitor (a grating performance by Fear Factor host Joe Rogan). Janet the lioness (Cher) suggests that he make her jealous by lavishing attention on other women. The bickering bears (Jon Favreau and Faizon Love) claim he must strut and growl. Sebastian the wolf (Bas Rutten) asserts that he must mark his territory since nothing attracts a woman like urine (cut to Griffin pissing on the wolf's head). Thankfully, he ignores the advice of Donald the Monkey (Adam Sandler): "Throw poop at her."
The screenplay cobbled together by five writers (including James himself, as well as the duo who worked on Norbit and the upcoming Smurfs project) curiously spends a lot more time on Griffin's bland romantic woes than on the animals, although there is a protracted subplot in which Griffin bonds with a lonely gorilla named Bernie (Nick Nolte!) by taking him to (shameless product placement alert) TGI Friday's. But with Sandler pal Frank Coraci (The Waterboy) in the director's chair, it's no wonder the film occasionally lapses into unnecessary (and unfunny) crudity: Witness the bizarre scene in which Ken Jeong, who's apparently only capable of playing effeminate freaks (The Hangover, the latest Transformers, etc.), claims his arms are too numb to retrieve car keys from his own pocket and orders Griffin to stick his hand in there and feel around for them. Try explaining that scene to the tots, Mom and Dad.
James always projects a sincerity that's missing from too many of his lowbrow peers, but when all is said and done, he's still about as funny as head lice. Since the American audience never grows tired of seeing a schlub fall on his fat ass, James gets knocked over repeatedly throughout the course of this film I counted four instances in the first 20 minutes alone and gave up after that. And it's obvious that these types of films (this one comes from Sandler's production company) cater to the male fantasy by pairing an overweight buffoon with hot women: Add Bibb and Dawson to a list that already includes Winona Ryder, Maria Bello, Jayma Mays, Amber Valletta and Leah Remini. Riiiight ...
Sandler's monkey gets off a couple of good cracks, but otherwise, the animals prove to be even more dull than the humans, never doing anything remotely interesting or amusing. Replaying Zookeeper in my mind draws up another Zoolander quip: "I've got a prostate the size of a honeydew and a head full of bad memories." Nothing wrong with my prostate, but, man, does my brain need a detox.