James lets zoo go untamed: ‘Zookeeper’ is a confused mashup lacking age-appropriate humor, sense of direction
“Zookeeper’’ is multiple movies for the price of one. This makes it the summer's best entertainment bargain by weight, if not by anything else.
Besides being the story of a Franklin Park Zoo attendant (Kevin James) who is unlucky in love, “Zookeeper’’ offers a tiny slice of the new “Transformers’’ movie, courtesy of Ken Jeong’s wild-man shtick as the zoo’s reptile keeper. It’s a bigger slice of “Horrible Bosses,’’ thanks to Joe Rogan’s elbows-out performance as James’s alpha-male romantic rival. It’s the two “Night at the Museum’’ pictures, except here it’s the zoo inhabitants who talk and make merry when no one is looking. And, of course, it’s every Kevin James movie ever made.
This means James plays his usual flub-a-dub everyman who’s not exactly the sharpest claw on the paw. How dull is that claw? It takes James half the movie to realize Rosario Dawson, as a zoo colleague, looks like Rosario Dawson. It then takes him nearly the rest of the movie to act on this. Straining credulity is one thing. Straining sanity is another.
Dawson walks through “Zookeeper’’ with charm and aplomb. Presumably, she signed on for the money. At least she earned her check. Almost as enjoyable are Sylvester Stallone and Cher, who provide the voices of a lion and lioness. Sly and Cher in the flesh are pretty scary these days. Rendered incorporeal they do just fine. The closing credits offer the animals chiming in on Boston’s “More Than a Feeling.’’ Cher definitely still has her pipes.
As for other voices, the most notable are Adam Sandler, whose capuchin monkey wears out his welcome pretty quickly; Maya Rudolph, whose jivey giraffe comes perilously close to aural blackface; and Nick Nolte’s gorilla.
What “Zookeeper’’ really wants to be is a buddy picture, with James and Nolte as Butch and Sundance. The movie’s big set piece is their evening out at a TGI Friday’s - a promising idea that is unpromisingly executed. Is it Frank Coraci’s slack direction or the tonal incoherence that comes from having five writers credited for the screenplay? There is a bigger tonal problem. The talking animals are wildly child-pleasing, except that much of their talk concerns matters of animal husbandry. Is there such a thing as a hard PG?
The reason the animals let James in on the secret that they can speak is to help him out of a jam. His ex-girlfriend (Leslie Bibb) has turned up, and the animals try to coach him back into her affections. You do not want to know about the wolf demonstrating scent-marking.
So how Boston is “Zookeeper’’? James lives in a three-decker. He and Dawson attend at a wedding reception at Copley Plaza (at which James lip-synchs to a Barry White song, the movie’s single funniest moment). Donnie Wahlberg, in the thankless role of a thuggish zoo attendant, has the only local accent - which he comes by naturally, of course.
On the debit side, the wonders of CGI make the Boston skyline seem to loom over the zoo. Beacon Street near the State House manages to intersect with the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, and it turns out that the quickest route from Back Bay to Logan Airport is by way of the Zakim Bridge. Who knew?
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.