Zookeeper

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I have a hard time buying the central premise of “Zookeeper.” Hot women being interested in Kevin James? Come on. You’d have an easier time convincing me that animals can talk!

That’s the secondary premise of “Zookeeper,” that animals can talk. They’ve made a pact not to do so in front of humans, though, unless the situation really demands it. In this case, the emergency is that Kevin James wants to win his ex-girlfriend back, and he needs romantic advice from an assortment of creatures whose sexual partners have always been provided for them by their caretakers.

Sure, it’s easy to ridicule a dumb movie like “Zookeeper,” on account of its being a dumb movie about a zookeeper who gets Cyrano de Bergeracked by bears and lions. But it isn’t just easy to ridicule it. It’s also fun.

James plays Griffin Keyes, the lead zookeeper at Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo. He’s still reeling after his break-up, five years ago, with Stephanie (Leslie Bibb), a gorgeous blonde who refused his marriage proposal because … wait for it … he was a zookeeper. She had no problem dating him, but there was no way she could marry someone of such lowly station.

Now she has reappeared in his life because (the movie is vague here) she’s friends with the woman who’s marrying Griffin’s brother, and this means she’ll be hanging around the zoo for the next several days leading up to the wedding (?), and Griffin wants to woo her back. He has overlooked the fact that her single objection to him five years ago was that he was a zookeeper, and that he is still as much of a zookeeper now as he was then, if not more so.

Anyway, the animals love Griffin, so they decide to help him. (The animals are able to mingle because, like all animals in zoo movies, they get out of their enclosures after hours and meet in the central pavilion.) Who are these beasts, specifically? Does it matter? Eh, all right. The lion and lioness are voiced by Sylvester Stallone and Cher; there’s an irritating monkey with the irritating voice of Adam “Irritating” Sandler; the quarrelsome bears are Jon Favreau and Faizon Love; Judd Apatow is for some reason the neurotic elephant; Maya Rudolph plays a giraffe; and there’s a wolf with the voice of something called “Bus Rutten,” who IMDb tells me is one of those Ultimate Fighting Championship guys. There is also a gorilla, who is mostly a guy in a gorilla costume, with the voice of Nick Nolte, naturally.

Their first plan is to make Griffin look heroic in front of Stephanie. That plan fails, however, because Griffin is an oaf who falls down a lot. The movie gets tired of it after a while, but in the first half, Kevin James falls down constantly. You could play a drinking game. If you take a shot every time Kevin James falls down in the first half of the film, you’ll be drunk enough to watch the second half.

Frustrated with what an idiot this guy is, the animals break their vow of silence and just speak to him directly, giving him mating-ritual advice based on their own knowledge. The bears tell him to walk with his chest sticking out, and to paw the air in a masculine fashion, as if grabbing salmon out of a stream. The wolf tells Griffin to pee everywhere, thus marking his territory and helping him feel secure and comfortable. Because Griffin is evidently a brain-damaged loner who has never interacted with humans before, he follows the animals’ advice to the letter. At the rehearsal dinner for the wedding, he pees in a plant in the corner of the restaurant. Seriously.

He also takes the gorilla to T.G.I.Friday’s, and gets away with it by putting a T-shirt on the animal and telling everyone they just came from a costume party. Again, I can suspend my disbelief about talking animals, but having a great time at T.G.I.Friday’s? Get out of here.

Well, sure enough, now that Griffin has more confidence and is standing up to his rival (Joe Rogan) and is urinating in nice restaurants, Stephanie starts to like him better. He seals the deal by making her jealous, bringing his lovely co-worker, Kate (Rosario Dawson), to the wedding. Next thing you know — and I mean that literally; the movie feels like it has skipped two or three scenes — Griffin has quit the zoo to work at his brother’s luxury auto dealership, and is doing snobby high-class things with Stephanie. Then he realizes he misses the zoo, the animals, and Kate, with whom he’s actually in love. We knew that was in the cards as soon as we saw how shallow Stephanie was, i.e., in the first scene of the movie. Took Griffin a while to catch up, though, being a large dumb animal and all.

But you probably want to know whether kids will like it. That’s the weird part. The talking-animal scenes constitute maybe a third of the film; the rest is Griffin’s lame romantic efforts and personal growth. (The screenplay was written by two guys, then rewritten by James and his collaborators, which could explain why it’s all over the place. The director is Frank Coraci, who made Sandler’s “Waterboy,” “Wedding Singer,” and “Click.”) It isn’t inappropriate for children in terms of content, but it’s not like kids are really big on romantic comedies, either. And the whole thing’s too simple-minded and derivative for adults. I don’t know who it’s for, other than people who enjoy making fun of bad movies.

Note: In accordance with the law that requires any movie set in Boston to include at least one (1) Wahlberg, Donnie Wahlberg plays a zookeeper in a couple scenes.

Other note: In accordance with the law that requires any movie made after 2007 to include Ken Jeong playing a weirdo, Ken Jeong plays a weirdo.

D+ (1 hr., 42 min.; PG, mild crude humor.)

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