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Dustin Putman

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Zookeeper  (2011)
1 Stars
Directed by Frank Coraci.
Cast: Kevin James, Rosario Dawson, Leslie Bibb, Ken Jeong, Donnie Wahlberg, Joe Rogan, Nat Faxon, Steffiana De La Cruz, Nick Bakay.
Voice Cast: Nick Nolte, Adam Sandler, Sylvester Stallone, Cher, Judd Apatow, Jon Favreau, Faizon Love, Maya Rudolph, Bas Rutten, Don Rickles, Jim Breuer, Richie Minervini.
2011 – 104 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for some rude and suggestive humor, and mild language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 7, 2011.
How does a solely formulaic movie like "Zookeeper," made from the spare parts of countless other films, take five writers—for those counting, they are (1) Nick Bakay, (2) Rock Reuben, (3) Jay Scherick, (4) David Ronn, and (5) Kevin James—to construct? Must be a quirky Hollywood thing. Here is a picture, directed by Frank Coraci (2006's "Click"), that uncomfortably and unhappily marries the romantic comedy genre with talking-animal slapstick. It tries and tries to entertain the kids in the audience with lame, predictable gags a'plenty, but then spends so much time dealing with an imbecilic human love triangle that they're bound to grow restless. As for adults, unless they are exceedingly easy to please—think the people who showed up in droves for 2009's "Paul Blart: Mall Cop"—they'll see right through a script that refuses to give them, and most of the characters onscreen, enough credit.

It has been five years since zookeeper Griffin Keyes (Kevin James) got his heart broken when then-girlfriend Stephanie (Leslie Bibb) turned down his marriage proposal, and he still hasn't been able to fully get over it. When Stephanie suddenly comes back into his life for the impending wedding between his brother (Nat Faxon) and her friend (Steffiana De La Cruz), she suddenly shows a newfound interest in him. To make her jealous, he convinces sweet-natured vet Kate (Rosario Dawson) to accompany him to the reception. When that starts to work, he then turns to passive-aggressively giving her attention and putting her down. Because, you know, that's what women like in their men. Before Griffin knows it, he's back together with Stephanie and giving up his professional passion for a more "respectable" job at his brother's car dealership. What he fails to realize is that Kate, who likes him a lot just as he is, is the right mate for him.

Did I forget to mention there are talking animals? In a bid at drawing in families, "Zookeeper" shoehorns a cavalcade of chatty creatures into the proceedings. They don't really play much of a part in the plot proper, and the film wastes the one notion with potential—that animals have been able to talk all along, but have kept quiet in front of humans lest they break "the code"—by not even having Griffin pick their brains when he learns the truth. Wouldn't you have too many questions to count if you found out animals could speak English and carry on full conversations? Griffin doesn't. He mostly just listens to their advice and, in one horrific scene, takes gorilla Bernie (voiced by Nick Nolte) to TGIFriday's for dinner. In the car, they sing along to "Low" by FloRida, and at the restaurant Bernie flirts with a group of gals and seductively slow-dances with one of them. She thinks he's a man in a gorilla costume. He knows she's a human, and wouldn't waste time getting her in the sack if given the chance. Such insinuations of bestiality are just skin-crawling. Also a lovely message to send to children is that women will like guys better if they criticize their physical appearance and generally treat them like 1950s housewives whose place is in the kitchen (or, at the very least, running off to retrieve dessert plates for their big, strong guy).

Griffin starts off as a nice fellow, but he's awfully thick-headed. Any person with a sliver of a brain cell would recognize that Stephanie is not worth chasing after. She's conceited. She's shallow. She's controlling. Kate, either by comparison or not, is every bit as beautiful and a genuinely kind, accepting, fun-loving person, to boot. She truly cares for Griffin, and the chemistry that they unmistakably share at the wedding reception as they dance around and swing from long curtains draped from the ceiling (to the sounds of The Commodores' "Easy," no less) should have been enough to make him forget all about Stephanie. Instead, the strained plot machinations keep on coming, each new development and conflict cause for the viewer to slap their own forehead in frustration. It really is difficult to enjoy any film when the would-be hero is written as an idiot of lower intelligence than everyone in the audience. Indeed, it simply becomes a long waiting game as we count the minutes until he finally comes to his senses and sees the error of his ways.

It is rather refreshing to see a male lead of larger carriage in a romantic role, and for that "Zookeeper" shall be commended. Kevin James (2011's "The Dilemma") is a good-looking guy at any size, and he's got a likable presence. Why director Frank Coraci insists on ending every other scene with him falling down or bumblingly crashing into things is a different story. It's not funny the first time it happens, and it's just embarrassingly lazy the fifth time around. As Kate, Rosario Dawson (2010's "Unstoppable") is lovely—too lovely, it should be said, for this standard role. The idea that Griffin doesn't fall for her from the start just because she wears a uniform at the zoo is ridiculous, tantamount to the gorgeous high school girl who's considered nerdy simply because she wears glasses. The scenes between Griffin and Kate are its best, and they even make the otherwise ridiculous ending work, where Griffin climbs up a city bridge on the back of a gorilla to stop Kate on her way to the airport (yes, ladies and gentlemen, that old "race to the airport" cliché is firmly intact).

"Zookeeper" doesn't know what it wants to be half the time. The animals are merely annoying afterthoughts, and the relationship stuff relies too stringently on far-fetched conventions. The production values are weak, too, what with the Franklin Park Zoo where Griffin and Kate work consisting of five or six animals placed in a circle around a fountain. There is a charming motion picture to be made that casts Rosario Dawson opposite Kevin James, treating them both as free-thinking, interesting, three-dimensional people with legitimate wants, dreams and desires as they fall helplessly in love. "Zookeeper" is not that movie. And to think how that unhired sixth screenwriter might have been the charm...
© 2011 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman