Zookeeper: Kevin James’ Animal Distraction

The star can be funny and endearing, but here he's buried under derivative gags and ritual humiliation

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Sony Pictures

Kevin James in Zookeeper

It’s probably time to stop fretting about Kevin James’s movies, and to stop hoping they’ll get better. After nine seasons of TV stardom on The King of Queens, the plus-size comedian made a successful transition to the big screen four summers ago as Adam Sandler’s “wife” in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry. The genial James persona — a fat guy who’s not seething with rage, no matter how many banana peels Fate strews in his path — offered a nice change from movie comics whose shtick was being angry (Sandler), manic (Jim Carrey) or sullen (Vince Vaughn). In Paul Blart: Mall Cop, a surprise hit in early 2009, James proved he could attract audiences on his own; and when he simply let his character endure indignity with a strangely Zen-like calm, he could be funny and endearing. Given stronger material, he might actually make good movies.

The first moments of Zookeeper — with James as Griffin Keyes, a loving friend of wild animals in his job at Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo — suggest that this could be the one. On a tropical beach with Stephanie (Leslie Bibb), the blond, dimpled object of his adoration, he launches into an obviously well-rehearsed proposal: “It’s no secret we’ve been on a journey, an adventure…Will you marry me?” Her firm “No” — accompanied by a pre-planned breakup speech — puts a damper on the accoutrements he’s arranged: the romantic horse ride, the mariachi band, the fireworks display in heart shapes. They may as well crumble in the sky, an objective correlative to Griffin’s broken spirit and ego.

Whoever wrote that sweetly funny opening scene — the credited scribes are James, King of Queens veterans Nick Bakay and Rock Reuben and two other writers, Jay Scherick and David Ronn, who worked on the Eddie Murphy moviesI Spy and Norbit — must have been excused from further service, for the film soon settles into predictably infantile Sandler territory. Encouraged to pile humiliations on Griffin, the writers show him knocked unconscious by running into a metal bar; propel him across a zoo gorge only to have him land splat on a rockface as if in a 127 Hours ordeal; and make him pee publicly on a wolf. (Did the MPAA accidentally leave off the “13” from its PG rating? Parents will be challenged to explain the urination scene, the size jokes and other penis-related comedy to their kids.)

Griffin has a wondrous rapport with the lions and monkeys and bears but goes stammering around pretty women, especially when Stephanie returns into his orbit. (He doesn’t seem to notice the ardor of Kate the lady zookeeper, played by the criminally gorgeous Rosario Dawson.) This cues the movie’s twin premises: that Griffin is too mild-mannered to attract Stephanie, and that he takes dating tips from the animals that break their “code of silence” by talking to him. In a weird amalgam of two other Eddie Murphy comedies — The Nutty Professor and Dr. Dolittle — the zookeeper takes the creatures’ counsel and transforms himself into an alpha-male boor, a character James doesn’t have the meanness to inhabit.

So James is stuck in routines echoing other movies: replaying the Ben-Hur chariot scene as a bike race in Boston traffic; doing a car singalong, — la Wayne’s World‘s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but to Flo Rida’s “Low” and with a gorilla named Bernie. The occasional opportunity for sharp physical comedy, like Griffin’s and Kate’s impromptu sash-dance at his brother’s wedding, falls stunningly flat. And the final chase, via truck, canoe and gorilla, is a case study in climax mismanagement. For the viewer, the film’s only suspense is guessing which celebrities (Sandler, Sylvester Stallone, Cher and, as Bernie, Nick Nolte) lent their voices to the animals.

It’s all mildly deplorable and instantly forgettable. Kevin James remains a potentially appealing movie star — if only he didn’t have to be in Kevin James movies.