Do you long for those golden days before the advent of CGI, when Dr. Dolittle spoke to his four-legged patients in their native tongues, Mr. Ed’s mouth moved courtesy of off-camera strings, and no one had yet considered having mammals ape (no pun intended) stereotypical ethnic accents? No? Well, you’ll be praying for their return by the end of Zookeeper, a stale goat pellet of a comedy in which the phenomenon of anthropomorphized animals is assumed to be so hilarious that it can carry an entire movie. Jesus, does no one remember Ed?
Kevin James, America’s go-to schlub with a heart of gold now that Jack Black has been reduced to peeing on Lilliputians, plays Griffin Keyes, a zookeeper in Boston, who just can’t get over his ex-girlfriend Stephanie (Leslie Bibb), a lithe, blond model type who shot down his proposal of marriage five years earlier. Stephanie, a superficial social-climber, has no good qualities other than the aforementioned lithe blondness, and yet Griffin pines for her as he wanders the grounds of the Franklin Park Zoo, pouring his heart out to the animals as though they were Jungian analysts. Griffin’s co-worker Kate happens to take the stunning form of Rosario Dawson, but as she often wears glasses and a lab coat, she is rendered all but invisible to our paunchy hero.
As luck would have it, Stephanie comes back into Griffin’s life thanks to his brother’s upcoming wedding, and despite the fact that she is as vapid as ever, he crumbles when faced with her dimples and miles of teeth (Colgate, Aquafresh, Tom’s of Maine, someone—call Bibb). Desperate to win her back, Griffin contemplates leaving the zoo for his brother’s fancy car dealership. And that’s when the animals start talking to him.
There’s a monkey, who sounds like Gilbert Gottfried after a bad stroke but who is actually voiced by Adam Sandler, also a producer. There’s a lion and lioness (Sylvester Stallone and Cher, respectively—no, I am not kidding) who bicker constantly, and a pair of bears (Jon Favreau and Faizon Love) who … also bicker constantly. There’s a giraffe (Maya Rudolph) who serves the role of “sassy black zoological sidekick” with a voice like Wanda Sykes on helium. And there’s a depressed gorilla (Nick Nolte) who loves popcorn but who has been quarantined ever since a zoo staffer (Donnie Wahlberg!) accused him of an unprovoked attack.
Each animal coaches Griffin in mating techniques that he then attempts to use on Stephanie (including but not limited to: peeing into a potted plant at the rehearsal dinner to mark his territory, puffing out his cheeks like a bullfrog, and rubbing up against a tree). This goes on for far too long, especially since we already know (spoiler alert, but not really) that Griffin will realize in the movie’s final minutes that he’s really in love with the kind, down-to-earth Kate. But if you like watching animals get drunk at chain restaurants, there will be plenty to amuse you in the interim.
James has the potential to be a decent leading man, but this is not the vehicle that’s going to catapult him into the ranks of Will Ferrell—or even Rob Schneider. It’s not just the incredibly obnoxious talking animals. The plot is tissue-thin and transparent, the script is lazy and unfunny, and whole thing is at least 30 minutes too long (there are not one but two extended dance sequences). Besides that, considering that this is probably the only movie they will ever appear in together, I think it’s fair to say that Cher and Wahlberg are criminally underused. If you take your kids to see this movie, bring a flask. You’ll need it—if only to get over hearing Nolte’s gravelly voice emerge from a gorilla suit, asking a TGI Friday’s waitress for 30 oranges.
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