Kevin James was fine as an affable sitcom schlub and Adam Sandler sidekick, but when Paul Blart: Mall Cop came out just after the 2008 economic meltdown and became a sleeper smash, he no longer seemed an innocuous loser. Suddenly, he was America’s loser. His puffed-up myopic bravado stood in for a nation whose dreams outstripped its reality. I was hoping James would go on to develop his charismatic fecklessness, but Zookeeper (I can’t believe I’m even writing this) is a dumbed-down Paul Blart.
It starts out as a generic talking-animal comedy, with James’ dweebish zookeeper discovering that the caged residents of Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo can squabble and wisecrack like the Toy Story playthings gone noisily vaudeville (best voices: Adam Sandler’s jabbery Borscht Belt monkey and Maya Rudolph’s imperious, soul-mama giraffe). When he takes the gorilla (Nick Nolte) out for a night at T.G.I. Friday’s, the film briefly soars. But too much of Zookeeper is devoted to James? lovelorn hero learning to accept Who He Really Is by abandoning his fantasy of marrying an icky ice princess (Leslie Bibb). It’s all very ho-hum, though James, who’s like Jason Alexander with a touch of Jeremy Piven, is still a schmo you can’t help rooting for. B-