Review: ‘Zookeeper’

1. Of all the relentlessly stupid scenes in "Zookeeper," I think the one that finally pushed me over the edge was when Kevin James took his talking gorilla best friend to T.G.I. Friday's. I could set up the scene for you, James' "motivation" or what have you, but, honestly, what would be the point? Kevin James takes his talking gorilla best friend -- his talking gorilla best friend who is wearing a T-shirt and a watch -- to have appetizers, play pool, flirt with girls and do "wacky" coordinated dances in front of a roaring crowd. A while back, promoting his film "The Greatest Film Ever Sold," Morgan Spurlock listed his five most egregious, hilarious examples of product placement in film for Vulture. His favorite was this bizarre scene from "Mac and Me:"

All right, so that's pretty bad. But is it any worse than Kevin James and his talking gorilla best friend gorging on "Loaded" Potato Skins, strumming a guitar, high-fiving waitresses, raving over the culinary delights of a T.G.I. Friday's? Is it any more surreal than that? Does it change the equation if I tell you that the voice of the gorilla belongs to Nick Nolte. I bet it does.

2. "Zookeeper" is produced by Adam Sandler (who also provides the voice of "Donald the Monkey") and directed by Sandler's old pal Frank Coraci, which means even for a movie whose premise begins and ends with Talking Animals, this one is particularly lazy. ("Just Go With It," Sandler's last movie, honestly looked like it was a succession of first takes slapped together, everyone rushing out of the room the minute someone yelled cut to go play golf.) The whole film just lumbers from one scene to another, without any logic or energy, and it knows you'll go along with it, because, come on, man, Talking Animals, you didn't want us to put any work into this, did you? I'm not saying you need to make the "There Will Be Blood" of Talking Animals Movies or anything -- though I'll confess, that would be something to see! -- but the amount of dismissive, cynical slop that's just sort of shoveled, here take this, you'll love it, like a diner waitress snarling as she slaps a rotted, overcooked hamburger on your plate and then overcharges you just because she can ... it's a little too much to take.

3. James plays Griffin, a loyal zookeeper at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston -- it must be said, that looks like a lovely zoo -- who still laments the fiancee who left him five years earlier because he was "just" a zookeeper. It is the experience of this reporter that women tend to like men who are gentle to animals more than they dislike them, but in the odd moral universe of "Zookeeper," the ex-fiancee wants Griffin to get a "real" job, which, for some reason, the film defines as "working as a car salesman." (Because that's what all the real movers-and-shakers are doing, and have always done: Aren't the kids on "Gossip Girl" all the offspring of car salesmen?) Afraid their beloved zookeeper buddy will leave the zoo all together, the animals get together to try to help Griffin win back his girl, or at least help him Understand Himself. And they do this by talking to him. Why do they talk? Because all animals talk when we're not around. Stop asking questions! Though it is not made clear whether all animals speak in celebrity voices -- including Cher, Sylvester Stallone, Maya Rudolph and Jon Favreau, all of whom sound tired -- or it's just the ones in this movie. I hope they all do, though, alas, that would make their decision to deprive humans -- other than kindly zookeepers -- of their voices almost tragic. I want to see a mongoose who talks like Stephen Hawking.

4. James has gotten himself tied up with the Sandler crew (Sandler has produced every movie he's been in other than "Hitch" and "The Dilemma"), and that's sort of a shame, because, as silly as this might sound, James is always at least trying. James is still too new to this to be lazy (he was the best part of "The Dilemma" mainly because he appeared legitimately excited to be working with Ron Howard, whereas the rest of the cast was just showing up to cash a check), and, truth be told, he has actual charm, were he ever to find a movie in which that mattered. But it's probably time to stop pretending he can be anything resembling a leading man, at that weight. Not to be mean here, but James is a massive, nearly obese man, and it's a legitimate question whether it's less likely that zoo animals would suddenly start talking or that a man who looked like Kevin James would have to choose between Leslie Bibb and Rosario Dawson. (Dawson's another actor who didn't get the memo that this was a movie about Talking Animals; she's personally responsible for the film's two charming moments.) James' appeal has always been that of a working-class amiable, modest schlub; turning him into the romantic pivot, the man who must choose between two beautiful women who desperately want him, is straining credulity to a degree that a lion who talks like Sylvester Stallone can't approach.

5. For a summer movie, the "special effects" that allow the animals in "Zookeeper" to talk are shockingly shoddy, just one step above "Clutch Cargo." When an animal "talks," he tends to stand motionless and just move his lips, which makes sense, because it must require intense concentration for an animal to talk. (You can't expect an animal to chew gum and walk at the same time, people.) "Zookeeper" is surely going to make a lot of money, which is a shame, not because it's so stupid (though it is), but because it's so obviously cynical and lacking basic imagination at its core. Here's your talking animal movie, you dopes. I mean, if you're going make Nick Nolte growl the voice of your gorilla, acknowledge that it's Nick Nolte! Have fun with it! And for God's sake, please don't make him order from an appetizers menu. That is the best way to sum up "Zookeeper:" It believes the first contact a sentient primate would make with a human being would be tell him that he wants to be part of a corporate-restaurant-dreck-sponsored montage sequence with the producer's wife playing the waitress. Movies like "Zookeeper" make you hate movies, restaurants, animals and earth.

Grade: D