For all those who are ceaselessly amused by guys in monkey suits, please be aware that Zookeeper contains a winning sequence involving a man and a talking gorilla enjoying an evening at T.G.I. Friday’s (in the movie all animals can speak English, they just agree not to whenever humans are around). If the film had run with this low-key lunacy for 90 minutes — and what’s not to love about a Nick Nolte-voiced simian buying appetizers for a group of secretaries — many of the movie’s failures could have been avoided.
Kevin James stars as Griffin, a main zookeeper at the Franklin Park Zoo who still pines for the beautiful Stephanie (Leslie Bibb), even though she dumped him when he popped the question five years ago. Out of the blue, Stephanie reappears, and intimates that they could get together again if only he would quit this silly zoo business and start making tons of dough. When he’s too slow to react, she gets back with a different ex-boyfriend, the obnoxious, intimidating Gale (Joe Rogan). The animals, who have been hearing about Griffin’s broken heart for half a decade, team up to help their human friend win her back by teaching him to pee in public. But as Griffin starts to get in touch with his animal instincts, he fails to notice that his colleague, zoo doctor Kate (Rosario Dawson), loves him for who he really is.
Kevin James once again relies repeatedly on the standard “fat guy falling down” brand of slapstick humor that seems to be where he’s most comfortable — there are four painful and embarrassing pratfalls in the first 20 minutes alone. If he’s going to insist on carrying through with this lazy trope, at least he could work with people who have a flair for visual joke-telling rather than with Frank Coraci, a director who is better with actors than he is with finding the right shots and the proper editing rhythms that build anticipation for a big comedic payoff.
Happy Madison, Adam Sandler’s company, helped produce Zookeeper, and all of the familiar touches are there. There’s Ken Jeong in the Rob Schneider part, Nicholas Turturro in the John Turturro role, and a wealth of late-’70s/early-’80s music cues. Not to mention Sandler himself hoarding pretty much all the good lines as the voice of Donald, a capuchin monkey who has never met a problem he couldn’t solve by flinging poo at it. All of this adds up to a familiar formula that has paid dividends at the box office in the past, but pretty much flatlined creatively just before The Longest Yard.
What’s even more depressing about Zookeeper, though, is that many of these same comedic ideas were covered ten years ago in The Animal, starring Rob Schneider and produced by Sandler. At this point, the Sandler comedy juggernaut is just outright repeating itself, and while Zookeeper is certainly a better movie than The Animal, evolving to merely forgettable from memorably bad isn’t all that much to brag about.