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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Zookeeper


Zookeeper (Two Stars)

U.S.: Frank Coraci, 2011

Zookeeper is a Kevin James comedy of almost stupefying dopiness; a movie that, at its worst, makes you feel (to succumb for a moment to Zookeeper’s own vice of ludicrous exaggeration), as if you were sinking slowly, slowly into a huge steaming vat of vanilla pudding, while screeching monkeys swing past on vines, pissing all over you. That’s an experience I‘ve never had, of course. But then, I didn’t want to have an experience like Zookeeper, either.

It’s a movie that really shouldn’t have been as lousy as it is. The cast is good –including the very likable James as Zookeeper Griffin Keyes, and especially Rosario Dawson as his coworker Kate and Nick Nolte doing the gruff voice of a gorilla named Bernie. The production values are nice; it was shot at Boston’s beautiful Franklin Park Zoo, with very photogenic animals and animatronics. And there’s a killer under-the credits rendition of Boston’s “More than a Feeling“, sung or lip-synched by the star animals, a routine that actually beats everything in the rest of the movie.

No, scratch that. Nothing else in this movie beats Rosario Dawson, an almost insanely good-looking woman — but who has been weirdly cast here as the Zookeeper’s great good friend who‘s trying to help him out romantically by pretending to be his date to get another woman (Leslie Bibb as blonde snob Stephanie) jealous. Pretending? Wouldn‘t it make more sense if it was Griffin who pretended to be in love with Stephanie, so he could pretend he wanted to make her jealous, so he could get an actual date with Kate?

Works for me. But not in this movie. The people who made it, and especially the people who wrote it, can’t seem to decide whether they’re making a lovable kid‘s movie with a lovable zookeeper and colorful talking animals, or a hip romantic comedy about a schmo who chases after a hottie, and ends up with an even hotter hottie. Not that you can’t do both, but the five writers blamed for Zookeeper, don’t make it work and don’t make us laugh.

There are possibilities, but they usually lead nowhere. In Zookeeper’s first scene, one of its few funny ones, Griffin attempts to propose to Stephanie on the beach, on a horse, with fireworks and a mariachi band waiting to pop out and serenade and explode over them. But Steph, a money-grubber impervious to romance, ignores all that pizzazz and dumps him, before the mariachi guys even get a chance to play.

He‘s crushed. (James has a good “crushed“ expression, a kind of kicked-spaniel look of longing befuddlement.) It’s sort of funny, about as funny as this movie will get. And five years later, Griffin is till pining over Stephanie, who’s still playing the field, still moping despite the fact that he has a good job that he likes, and is surrounded by animals he likes (and who, it develops, like him a lot). He doesn’t have a mean boss — like those clowns in Horrible Bosses this week — or problems with the zoo. (That may be one of the script‘s big lacks.) And his co-worker is Dawson‘s Kate — who, I have to repeat. is so gorgeous that she can make fireworks and mariachi bands explode in your heart. (Not that Bibb isn’t gorgeous too; just not that gorgeous.)

So Griffin has to choose: Be the man Steph wants him to be: a greedy slick hustler/huckster selling luxury cars at his brother’s swanky car dealership. Or be the man he wants to be: a Zookeeper on producer Adam Sandler‘s payroll, who works with a smart, friendly knockout who looks just like Rosario Dawson, and who might just leave for Nairobi if he doesn’t make the right moves.

I know what you’re thinking. What does all this sex romantic fantasy stuff have to do with zoos or animals or Kevin James as an affable zookeeper? Well, as it turns out, the animals all speak English (though many of them probably come from Africa or other foreign lands), but only to each other and not to humans. And they decide to break their rule and start gabbing with Griffin, in order to advise him on to win Leslie.

But why do they want him to be with Leslie, who hates zoos and wants him to leave? Shouldn’t they be promoting a romance with Kate, their friend, and trying to keep her at the zoo? Why do they give such lousy advice: the bears telling him to be an alpha-bear or alpha-male, and the lions telling him to be leonine, and Don Rickles as a frog telling him to puff up his neck, and the wolf telling him to pee in an area to mark off his territory — which Griffin actually does, in a potted plant at a party?

This all struck me as ridiculous: like most of the movie, too silly for adults, too gamy for kids. The movie has another ace supposedly up its sleeve: lots of star voices for the animals, beginning with producer Adam Sandler as Donald the monkey, and continuing with Sylvester Stallone and Cher as Joe and Janet the lions, Nolte as Bernie the gorilla, Maya Rudolph as Mollie the giraffe, Jon Favreau and Faizon Love as Jerome and Bruce the bears, Bas Rutten as Sebastian the wolf, and in an unusual casting coup, producer/director/writer Judd Apatow as Barry the hyphenate-elephant.

There are other cards the writers (all five of them) keep pulling out of their deck, including Bernie’s big night at Thank God It’s Friday, with Griffin disguising him as a guy in a gorilla suit. And there are Griffin’s duels with various obnoxious fiancés of Stephanie’s (the worst scenes in the movie) and Griffin‘s attempts to become a slick super-salesman at his brother’s car dealership. (No, those were the worst scenes in the movie.)

Only the dumbest sounding one of those last three — Bernie at TGIF — actually works, and that’s partly because Nolte does such a good job as the Gorilla. He’s one of the few voice actors here who seem to realize that when you’re playing a wild beast, you have to articulate clearly instead of screeching unintelligibly (as some of them do).

The director of Zookeeper, Frank Coraci, made one of Sandler‘s best movie comedies, The Wedding Singer, as well as the more ordinary but amusing The Waterboy, and he makes this movie look good as well as move along, He just doesn’t seem able to differentiate this time between the good jokes (rare) and the bad ones (most of them). As for Kevin James, he’s an actor with such an affable persona, a plump easygoing guy who doesn’t seem to have a mean bone in his body, that it’s hard to blame him for this mess — hard to dislike him when he tries to be unlikable, as when he turns massively obnoxious car salesman, which he doesn’t do well. (He should study some slick old Eddie Albert movie villains.)

But if you spend most of the movie absorbed in Griffin’s love life, as this movie almost forces you to, instead of, say, having Griffin spend more time fighting to save his friends at the zoo, then he turns into just a big fat crybaby. Perhaps the writers think that their core audience s is the one that wants to see shlub Griffin win out with two killer babes. But I suspect that more of the audience wants to see Griffin save the zoo somehow — and get the SuperBabe in the end.

 Then again, maybe the writers could have kept their ideas, here, and just written some more funny jokes. With James, Ken Jeong (again), Sandler, Nolte, Rudolph, Rickles and the others, it shouldn’t have been hard to get them delivered. (It was, though.) Main rule: if a joke doesn’t work — and most of them here don’t — just cut to Rosario Dawson.

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2 Responses to “Wilmington on Movies: Zookeeper”

  1. In the foreshadow of our NBA Lockout some NBA and NFL athletes have come together to create this hilarious video:

  2. Andrew says:

    I didn’t have much interest in paying theater-prices to see Zookeeper, even though I’ve been a fan of Kevin James since the King of Queens days, because well, this movie just didn’t seem that interesting. Still though, I’d like to see it so I put it in my Blockbuster Movie Pass queue. If I really hate it I can always just take it in for an in-store exchange, which is a great option that negates the feeling of taking a risk on a movie. It’s also an option that’s not available with Netflix/Qwikster. And Blockbuster is a more complete service too, for $10 a month I get by mail, blu-rays, dvd’s and video games, online streaming and 20 movie channels. And as a DISH Network employee I’m happy to tell people that when they sign up now they can get 12 months of Blockbuster Movie Pass free!


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon