Jeff Goldblum memorably metamorphosed into a half-human half-insect hybrid in David Cronenberg’s The Fly. William Hurt spent a significant amount of time in a sensory-deprivation tank in Ken Russell’s Altered States and devolved into a feral ape for his troubles. In this long lineage of respected thespians willing to commit themselves to coaxing out their bestial side comes Kevin James in Zookeeper, which features the actor pissing in plants at restaurants and occasionally giving an unconvincing guttural wail.
The premise alone is enough to make Morrissey have a brain aneurysm. Big-boned naturist Griffin Keyes (James) is a self-styled, fatly content “Hippo Whisperer” who works in Boston’s Franklin Zoo and is considered by his co-workers to be a latter-day Dian Fossey, in spite of the fact all of the animals he works with are kept in indentured servitude. No matter – we can sense that Griffin is such a selfless humanitarian because he installs old tyres for the animals to play with, and he also helps co-worker Kate (Dawson) stop an animal from choking. These acts of human kindness are off-set by Griffin’s tendency to run into walls whilst screaming every five minutes or so.
This mind-blowingly dumb approximation of zoo life is complicated by the fact that all the animals kept in captivity can also communicate with humans for some reason, but ordinarily choose to suppress this hidden quality, presumably even when they’re being slaughtered by the truckload and fed back to the same humans who gawp at them from behind bars. Whatever the reason for their silence, they choose to sever this hitherto unrevealed "animal code" when Griffin hints that he could use some relationship advice. Griffin pursues this line of thought instead of exploiting his new powers for monetary gain or – given he’s supposed to be the world’s most benevolent animal lover since the protagonist of documentary Zoo – get someone like Peter Singer on the phone, and hash out what this means for the animal liberation movement.
Griffin quickly strikes up a friendship with Bernie the Gorilla (Nolte), an irascible and lonely primate engaged in an abusive relationship with Wahlberg, who gives the most nuanced performance of his career as a borderline sadomasochist. In order to get Bernie out of his self-imposed existential funk, Griffin doesn’t free the animal but instead takes the ape out for a meal at a popular family restaurant, which is so sledgehammered into the plot the Peter Gabriel pop classic may as well have been piped into the diner’s sound system whilst the pair gorged on their food.
The zoo’s chorus of relationship advisers are filled out by a series of past-it movie stars (Stallone; Cher), forming an Ocean’s Eleven style coterie of mindless solipsism, while Apatow voices an elephant named Barry in his worst career move since producing Drillbit Taylor. Occasionally something they say will be of merit to Griffin’s plight. Usually, though, the monkey voiced by Sandler will suggest throwing shit at his problems in some capacity – a fitting proposition given that the film is otherwise so unremittingly coprophagial.
Griffin is torn between old flame Stephanie (Bibb), transparently a vainglorious dolt clamouring for Griffin to check out of the “zoo business” and start a career at his brother’s car dealership, and the earthen Kate, who, the script would have us believe, understands Griffin on every level other than his gut one. He later woos her while billowing through enormous white curtains at a drinks reception. I found John Wayne’s performance as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror more convincing.
Much has been made of the fact that the biggest suspension of disbelief required in Zookeeper stems not from the fact that animals can, in fact, speak to humans but the premise that any woman with supermodel looks would pursue Kevin James as an object of sexual desire, given the actor’s girth and dopey facial features. Bibb, for example, roves carefree around a luxurious apartment like a gazelle whose caught its prey, but is not so materialistic as to suggest James go a few rounds on a Stairmaster.
There are some other mitigating factors that suggest Zookeeper is aiming for that Night at the Museum sweet spot, but falls abysmally short of meeting even those requirements. To wit: Ken Jeong completes his descent into craven family comedy hell by showing up for a paycheque as the zoo’s reptile master, Venom, and a balding Joe Rogan (former host of TV’s Fear Factor) has a turn as Bibb’s other potential beau, a hotheaded egomaniac who some reason James challenges to an impromptu tricycle race.
Needless to say, with all of these factors combined, Zookeeper is less fun than sitting on a cactus, bare-bottomed.