We want the same thing from our comedians that we expect of great ballplayers -- that they "leave it all on the field." And Kevin James does that. From his various team-ups with Adam Sandler to Paul Blart: Mall Cop, James hurls himself at the physical shtick and never lets on that he knows he's not making art.
In Zookeeper, James and his stunt-doubles take a pounding -- pratfalls, bicycle spills, porcupine pokes. It's a kid-friendly romantic comedy, a Night at the Museum at the zoo. With slapstick and sincerity, James buys into the idea that he's a friend to animals, big and small, and that a guy with his limited prospects and his lineman-gone-to-seed physique has a shot -- several shots -- at a beauty like Leslie Bibb.
It's a talking animals comedy, as the hapless Griffin (James), zookeeper at Franklin Park Zoo, receives advice to the lovelorn from the critters in his charge. The animals always have kept to "the code," enforced by Joe the Lion (Sylvester Stallone): No talking to humans. But we've seen Griffin flame-out with the fair Stephanie (Bibb) in an epic proposal scene that opens the movie. And the animals have heard Griffin go on and on about this woman for years.
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Enough is enough. If the friendly zookeeper can't close the deal, the animal kingdom will pitch in and get him up to speed on what they know by instinct -- the mating game.
Joe the Lion suggests "cutting her from the herd," getting her away from her current boyfriend (Joe Rogan, an over-the-top boor). Joe's lioness wife (Cher) talks up the idea of making Stephanie jealous. The bears offer advice on becoming a predator. And "Lead with your puddin' cup," Jerome and Bruce (Jon Favreau and Faizon Love) declare. Yeah, it means what you think it does.
The capuchin monkey (Adam Sandler, doing a very funny voice) is lost in reveries about having a thumb. "I've been blessed."
And the elephant (Judd Apatow) has the same solution for any awkward moment -- "Flee. Fleeing is the new fighting."
All along, Griffin can't see how sweet and seemingly available the zoo's eagle expert and vet (Rosario Dawson) is. She's into guys who are into animals.
"You're like the frickin' hippo whisperer," she cracks.
Director Frank Coraci, a veteran of Adam Sandler's comic style (The Waterboy), is more at home with the slapstick than the would-be romance or the movie's darker subtext. Bernie (Nick Nolte), a forlorn gorilla, has long been kept in a cave so he can't repeat his attack on a cruel zookeeper (Donnie Wahlberg). The film's silliest scenes involve Griffin dragging Bernie along to Bernie's dream eatery -- T.G.I.Friday's -- where Bernie, supposedly on his way to a costume party, is a hit.
The film's mix of digital critters and real animals results in far too many shots of this beast or that one standing alone in the shot, mouth moving, cracking jokes.
But the cuddly, ever-put-upon James takes his comic lumps like a man. His Griffin suffers injuries and indignities and lets us laugh at him as he does. No matter where the script wanders and where the direction founders, at some point, James' comic instincts take over. And this time, they don't let him down.
Directed by Frank Coraci. Written by Nick Bakay. A Columbia Pictures release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated PG for some rude and suggestive humor, and language. Running time: 104 minutes.
Critic's rating: **
Griffin .......... Kevin James
Kate .......... Rosario Dawson
Joe the Lion (voice) .......... Sylvester Stallone