Zookeeper is offensive to women, men, children, parents, WASPs, Asians, African-Americans, animals and zookeepers. Also Nick Nolte fans may not be too happy. Have I overstated things? Possibly, but how will we ever know? It is a movie with no conceivable audience. Somewhere in Hollywood are producers who entrusted money and equipment to people who put talking zoo animals in the same movie as Kevin James inadvertently flashing Rosario Dawson and Leslie Bibb with his off-camera member. “Oh! That’s going to be hard to unsee,” Dawson exclaims in dismay. Parents: Think long and hard about those words.
Zookeeper is an unholy blend of both Night at the Museum movies with a misanthropic, passive-aggressive Adam Sandler movie. On the one hand, it’s about a sad-sack male unlucky in love who finds meaning in his work when he’s befriended by the unexpectedly talking attractions at the public institution where he works. On the other hand, it’s also about which of two gorgeous, confident, otherwise well-adjusted women is right for Kevin James, a short, overweight, neurotic, clumsy schlub who relates better to animals than he does to people.
Is it impossible that an average guy with below-average personal skills and no special fortune could wind up involved with not one but multiple dazzling beauties? No, not at all. Why, just this week in Horrible Bosses there’s Charlie Day, a rather emasculated dental hygienist with no long-term career plans, who is engaged to Lindsay Sloane while also being aggressively pursued at work by his boss, Jennifer Aniston. And last week in the third Transformers the unemployed Shia LaBeouf, on the rebound from Megan Fox, landed in the posh DC apartment of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. It happens all the time.
James plays the oddly named Griffin Keyes, who works at Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo and carries a torch for Stephanie (Leslie Bibb), a blond, status-conscious future trophy wife who broke up with Griffin on the occasion of his meticulously over-engineered marriage proposal. (The prologue, which bathes the romantic scene in a golden-hour sunset that turns to twilight just as Stephanie says “No,” offers about the only visual interest in the film.) Five years later, Stephanie still thinks that Griffin is so cute in his zookeeper uniform, but can’t get past the “zookeeper” label and the modest paycheck that comes with it.
Griffin’s brother Dave (Nat Faxon), who owns a luxury auto dealership and is engaged to a Filipina beauty (Steffiana de la Cruz, James’s real-life wife), could hook up Griffin with a high-powered salesman job any time Griffin wants. But Griffin feels his place is at the zoo — and, unbeknownst to him, the animal population, who regard him as the best zookeeper they’ve ever had, feel the same way.
Somehow, Griffin has worked for years at the zoo side by side with Kate (Rosario Dawson), who is not only gorgeous but shares Griffin’s interests and likes him for who he is, without ever contemplating her as anything other than a colleague. In fact, when he hits on the plan of trying to make Stephanie jealous by taking Kate to his brother’s wedding, he proposes the whole strategy to Kate in platonic confidence. “What are we, in junior high?” Kate asks with tolerant disbelief, but cheerfully goes along with the scheme, ostensibly because Griffin offers to, um, share his lunch with her for a specified period of time. I’m pretty sure that was grade school, not junior high.
The jealousy ruse is one of several strategies for wooing Stephanie that Griffin gets from the animals at the zoo once they decide to reveal their ability to speak to him. (For reasons I can no longer recall, the animals fear that if Griffin doesn’t win Stephanie he’ll leave the zoo.) Other strategies the animals propose include growling and strutting like a bear, urinating to mark his territory like a wolf, and bullying and insulting her like — well, like a misogynistic lout, I guess. I can’t think of any animals that do that.
I’m prepared to accept a movie in which wolves recommend urinating to mark their territory as a way of winning a female. A movie in which wolves recommend this approach, even demonstrating the proud and confident stance of a urinating wolf, yet simultaneously know that Griffin, practicing the behavior in question, should hastily put away his equipment at the approach of human females before they see him, has lost me. And if that didn’t do it, the later scene in which Griffin, still unclear after that mortifying incident that what impresses a lady wolf is not the right approach with human females, returns to the territory-marking strategy in a public reception hall at his brother’s wedding, is the final straw (even if no one sees Griffin but a mortified steward). It’s not just that it’s stupid. It’s not funny, and it completely cancels out whatever natural sympathy James brings to the table.
What’s worse is that while the urinating strategy doesn’t work, the bullying and insulting strategy does. Bewildered by verbal abuse from the normally diffident Griffith, Stephanie submissively snaps to attention, following orders and absorbing indignity with cringing acceptance. Meanwhile, Kate approaches her role in the charade as a romantic lark, pretending that Griffin is her dream beau — and when Stephanie comes around just as sparks are beginning to fly between Griffin and Kate as they leave the reception, Kate allows herself to be dumped and ditched while Griffin and Stephanie ride off into their second shot at the sunset.
Things I haven’t even gotten to yet include (a) the openly hostile rivalry between Griffin and Stephanie’s new beau (Joe Rogan), a bullying alpha male with all the makings of Stephanie’s ideal man; (b) the scantily clad women doing aerial gymnastics on ribbons suspended from the ceiling at the wedding reception (!); (c) Ken Jeong, singlehandedly perpetuating anti-Asian xenophobia in all the worst movies of the year (Transformers: Dark of the Moon, The Hangover Part II and possibly Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son, unseen by me), here playing a reptilian reptile handler nicknamed Venom; and (d) some astonishingly grating animal voiceovers, especially Adam Sandler as a scatologically obsessed monkey, Judd Apatow as a neurotic elephant and Maya Rudolph as an uppity giraffe. These are the kind of ultra-silly voices you do to amuse very young children, like three or four. A smart seven-year-old would not be amused. Eddie Murphy’s Dr. Doolittle movies were less condescending.
More vocally straightforward are Sylvester Stallone and Cher as a pair of bickering lions, Jon Favreau and Faizon Love as bear buddies and Nick Nolte as a lonely, wounded gorilla named Bernie who’s supposed to be the emotional centerpiece of the zoological part of the story. Bernie has been exiled to the lowest and least fun corner of the zoo for allegedly lashing out at a zoo worker named Shane (Donnie Wahlberg), though the truth is that Shane is a sadist who abused Bernie and lied about it, and comes back for more. Remember, it’s for kids! None of these plot elements connect with anything else in the story, or are resolved in satisfying ways.
Bernie still remembers the great view he used to enjoy, when he could see buildings. Not trees or grassland, buildings. “Is T.G.I. Fridays really as amazing as it looks?” he wonders plaintively. Because if you were a gorilla … oh, forget it. Friday’s probably couldn’t pay Nolte to shill for them in a TV commercial, but a movie voiceover product placement is another story.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.