"Zookeeper" smells like the monkey house before cleaning time. All of a piece in that it's dreadful in every respect, this archly mirthless comedy about a sad sack Dr. Dolittle plainly covets the "Night at the Museum" audience keen for more institutional after hours fantasy. But the five screenwriters, including star Kevin James, go far astray by spending inordinate time on the tubby hero's preposterous involvement with two hotties, which will be of little interest anyway to tykes who just want to see the talking animals. Current dearth of family-style comedies could play to Sony's commercial advantage, but notable shortage of laughs suggests it won't do the same sustained business of James' previous common man comedy, "Paul Blart: Mall Cop."
Embarrassingly rejected by Hottie No. 1, Stephanie (Leslie Bibb), after an elaborate marriage proposal, earnest schmo Griffin Keyes (James) retreats to his job at Boston's (real) Franklin Park Zoo, where the animals yack with each other but observe a code of not speaking to humans. But after a lion lets the cat out of the bag, the critters all start gabbing with Griffin, but only with him, because they feel he's the only one who respects them and treats them right.
Unfortunately, the animals' chatter is just as inane as that of any humans in the vicinity and special effort has clearly been expended by a semi-all-star voice cast to make sure some of them are truly unpleasant to listen to, with Maya Rudolph's giraffe and Adam Sandler's monkey being the vocal equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard.
Before long, Griffin develops a special friendship with a morose gorilla (voiced more tolerably by Nick Nolte) who, in some wannabe laff-riot moments, leaves the reservation with Griffin for some dinner and dancing (he's able to get away with the ruse because he talks, convincing all he's a man in a suit).
Unfortunately, Stephanie reenters the picture and Griffin is stupid enough to once again compete for the shallow blonde's attention. His ploy is for her to see him in the company of fellow zoo worker Kate (Rosario Dawson), whom he somehow doesn't realize is Hottie No. 2 in his life until she dons a sharp outfit for their date at the wedding party of Griffin's brother (Nat Faxon), to whom he bears absolutely no resemblance. Even then, Griffin ditches the woman who clearly likes him for the nitwitted Stephanie, whose abysmal taste in men is confirmed by her relationship with the vainly self-centered Gale (Joe Rogan).
All this has the only slightest of relevance to Griffin's attachment to the animals, which is not convincing anyway due to the crassness of most of their exchanges. The animatronic mouth movements and expressions are more credible than those of old Mr. Ed, to be sure, but the whole undertaking feels so calculated and insincere that any laughs catch in the throat. The film's 103 minutes should have been 83, if that.
James' Griffin appears far too homely and lacking in savoir faire for the female company he keeps and when he goes all slick and cocky in the late-going to impress Stephanie, the film reaches the dismal depths of its own absurdity.
Although one would never have expected to find her in a film like this, Dawson, by dint of enthusiasm, is the only actor who rises above the material with her dignity intact. Ken Jeong keeps the innuendo coming as a randy zoo worker, but he doesn't seem to be only co-star of "The Hangover Part 2" on hand; if the monkey here isn't the very same from that film, it's a very close relative.