This is a movie about how Kevin James can do so much better, but Kevin James can do so much better than this movie. In the film, he tries to change his life to be worthy of a woman he thinks he loves. In the audience, we want him to stop making movies about what a shlub he is.
James and a team including some of his “King of Queens” writers have produced a dull and oddly mean-spirited movie about a zookeeper who takes advice about dating (or, as the animals call it, “mating”) from the talking animals at his zoo.
The woman he likes is a fashion designer named Stephanie (the game and able Leslie Bibb), who dumps him in the first five minutes of the film after a proposal. Still heartbroken five years later, Griffin (James) sees her again. At first, he resists her indications of interest but then, just as he begins to respond, another old boyfriend enters the picture (Joe Rogan as Gale). The animals decide to reveal their secret power of speech so they can give Griffin some guidance on how to get Stephanie back. As you can imagine (and as perhaps you would rather not), the animals have their own ideas about how to attract the opposite gender. Since, except for the bickering lions (voices of Sylvester Stallone and Cher!), none of them appear to have significant others of any species, their advice is of questionable value. Nevertheless, this gives us an opportunity to see James walking like a bear and marking his territory like a wolf. Thankfully, he does not follow the monkey’s direction about what to throw.
But there isn’t much more to be thankful for. Adam Sandler (who provides the voice of the monkey) produced, which means it’s yet another slacker no-effort film, with another soundtrack filled with 80’s songs not to make any point or for any particular purpose but just because that’s the last time Sandler listened to the radio. And despite its superficial endorsement of being yourself and doing what you love, that over-done message is eclipsed by a weird turn in the third act. Griffin takes advice from the animals that seems to have been stolen from Mystery the Pickup Artist. They tell him to keep Stephanie off-balance by alternating insults and affection to make her insecure — and it works, not just on her but on others as well. There is a cliched race-t0-the-airport scene which makes no sense in an era of cell phones, but it does show us what and who is important to Griffin — until a pointless and distracting detour just so he can hit someone along the way that undermines that message as well. Griffin does some things he is not proud of but makes no attempt to fix his mistakes. The film seems to suggest that it is all right, even a sign of strength and confidence to hurt someone’s feelings.
The PG rating should not be a signal that this is a kids’ movie. Children will not be very interested in Griffin’s romantic adventures or the night out on the town he gives to the zoo’s melancholy gorilla (“Send some fried zucchini to that table of secretaries,” he tells the waitress). It’s downright smarmy, with the use of fake swear words like “frickin'” to keep the MPAA ratings board at bay. Poor Ken Jeong for the second week in a row is stuck in a humiliatingly shrill, borderline racist caricature as a snake specialist and Donnie Wahlberg is wasted as an animal-abusing zoo staffer.
James is a talented and appealing performer and even this mess can’t hide the radiant beauty and class of Rosario Dawson as a warm-hearted zoo vet. There are a few nice moments when Dawson sails across a dance floor on acrobat’s streamers and a few it-could-have-been-worse moments when it turns out that Griffin is not the usual comedy movie incompetent. He has a nice relationship with his brother and is good at what he does. But James and Dawson could be so much better doing something else.
Parents should know that this film has several fake swear words (“frickin'”) and some racy lyrics, also some crude bathroom language and potty humor, comic peril and violence, social drinking, romantic complications and hurt feelings, flirting, and references to mating.
Family discussion: What was the best and worst advice Griffin got from the animals? Why did it take him so long to know what his feelings really were? Which animal was your favorite and why?
If you like this, try: “Doctor Dolittle” with Rex Harrison and “Dr. Dolittle 2” with Eddie Murphy