Kevin James almost overcomes film’s general odor of terrible
As he gets older it seems that Adam Sandler is becoming much more selective in the types of films he makes. It’s not that he left comedy for prestige pictures, like Steve Martin and Bill Murray did. He just is taking films that slowly move away from his usual idiot man-child with an anger management problem into something a bit more accessible. One imagines that years ago The Zookeeper would’ve been a slapstick farce with Sandler’s famous tirades making their way into the film. Ten years ago Sandler would’ve been front and center in The Zookeeper as opposed to producing and lending his voice talents. Now Kevin James steps into the headliner role, with the film ostensibly tailored towards his penchant for physical comedy.
Griffin (James) is a zookeeper with a heart as big as his waistline. Dumped by the woman of his dreams (Leslie Bibb), he decides to leave the world of the zoo behind to have what he thinks is a better life. His animals don’t want him to, though, and their curious ability to speak gives him some new friends. Their goal: help him win back the girl against a jerk (Joe Rogan) who wants her affections. All the while the perfect girl for Griffin (Rosario Dawson) is in front of him but never in his gaze.
One can tell how much Sandler contemplated being in this film because Frank Coraci is directing it. He and Sandler collaborated on a handful of Sandler’s music videos as well as his films, most successful of them being The Wedding Singer, and one imagines that Sandler wouldn’t have pursued this as a producer (and brought in a director he knows well) if he hadn’t thought of starring in it himself initially. And this has all the hallmarks of a typical Sandler film (mainly from five credited screenwriters) that has been adapted to the comedic skillet of Kevin James (who is also credited as a writer on this film).
This is a mess of a film that has the problems one generally has when you have five writers for a vehicle that bears the hallmarks of being originally designed for someone completely different. There’s an uneven tone and a predictable plot, and plenty of comedy moments that don’t ring that way, but a film starring James called Zookeeper with talking animals has to have this sort of plot. It wouldn’t feel right if it was a dark drama. So there’s a certain level the film will never hit, but it does try. For all the film’s general faults, which are many, something interesting happens.
Kevin James gives the film an endearing, sweet quality that almost redeems the entire film.
James has strong skills when it comes to slapstick, which comes into play for most of the film’s running time, but there’s something sweet to Griffin when it comes to how he deals with both animals and human. The film’s running undercurrent involves Griffin’s friendship with a gorilla named Bernie (Nick Nolte) that turns into something beyond zookeeper and animal. They have a friendship that becomes rather touching in many regards. Credit Nolte for terrific voice work, as he gives Bernie a world weary presence that only a voice as gravely as Nolte’s can provide, but a large part of it needs to go to James.
A lot of actors would not have the ability to play off a trained animal, with CGI providing the dialogue later, but James does somehow. This world is rather silly but he has this ability to make it all seem somewhat normal. It’s not a brilliant performance but it’s quite a good one in how he normalizes everything. There’s no sense he’s mailing it in; on the contrary he’s really trying hard to provide something to lackluster material and he almost succeeds in making this into something good.
As it stands, Zookeeper being slightly above average is almost a miracle given the circumstances. It may have been somebody else’s vehicle but you can’t fault Kevin James for taking someone else’s bad film and trying to turn it something good. And he almost succeeds, too, making you wonder what the man could do with a good script tailored towards his abilities.
Director: Frank Coraci Cast: Kevin James, Leslie Bibb, Joe Rogan, Ken Jeong, Donnie Wahlberg, Rosario Dawson Voice Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Cher, Adam Sandler, Don Rickles, Judd Apatow, Jon Favreau, Faizon Love, Maya Rudolph, Bas Rutten, Rob Schneider, Nick Nolte, Jim Breuer Writer(s): Kevin James, Nick Bakay, Rock Reuben, Jay Scherick, David Ronn
Scott Sawitz is an Inside Pulse original. He's also been featured on The Ultimate Fighter.com, Fox Sports.com, Nerdcore Movement.com, CagePotato.com, Inside Fights.com and Film Arcade.net (among others). When Scott isn't writing about film he's making his own. Check out Drunk Justice Productions right here.