Boston's Franklin Park Zoo is the setting for "Zookeeper," the Kevin James flick in which talking animals help him win back the woman of his dreams by dispensing advice on dating and mating.


Boston's Franklin Park Zoo is the setting for "Zookeeper," the Kevin James flick in which talking animals help him win back the woman of his dreams by dispensing advice on dating and mating.

The film's life lesson comes through loud and clear. And it's not the sticky-sweet, be-yourself-and-love-will-happen message that the filmmakers may have intended. No, it's something much more resonant than that. "Zookeeper" gives hope that cherubs like James' Griffin Keyes can land beauties like Leslie Bibb's long-legged Stephanie or Rosario Dawson's sultry-yet-subdued veterinarian, Kate.

We're also expected to believe that Griffin never gave Kate a second glance in the five years they have worked together at the zoo. Really? Has anyone noticed Dawson's ("Seven Pounds") exotic beauty? She exudes sensuality even when glammed-down in her zoo khakis. Total miscast.

But, poor casting choices are the least of "Zookeeper's" problems. The script and story - credited to five writers, including James - is beyond boring. James is up to the same old sitcom shtick he's been doing since "The King of Queens." He can do the pratfalls - a porcupine quill to the cheek, riding a too-small bike, splitting his pants - in his sleep, and here he is definitely on autopilot. It's "Paul Blart: Zookeeper of Queens." No matter the gimmick, it's still just fat-guy-in-a-little-suit type of laughs.

Which is too bad, because James has good performances in him. I'm thinking of "Hitch," where full advantage was taken of his natural comedy and charm. Perhaps if he had a director more adept than Frank Coraci, the outcome would have been better. Coraci, who has never done anything as well as his debut film, "The Wedding Singer," also is directing the shot-in-Quincy "Here Comes the Boom," starring James, which comes out next summer. (That film's gimmick is mixed martial arts; can't wait.)

Coraci also has a hard time juggling the live action with the animal antics. Coraci is a dud with the humans, never confident in his story (and who can blame him, really?). With the animals, however, he's having some fun with a voice cast that includes Cher, Sylvester Stallone, Judd Apatow, Adam Sandler (stealing scenes as a monkey that sounds like Gilbert Gottfried), Maya Rudolph, Jon Favreau, Don Rickles, Bas Rutten, Faizon Love and Nick Nolte, the gravelly sounding gorilla, Bernie.

The animals decide to stage a romantic intervention on Griffin's behalf. Tired of his woe-is-me attitude, they break their silence in order to help him get back Stephanie, who was last seen dumping him on the beach after he proposed. She wants a rich guy, not a zookeeper. Cut to five years later and Griffin is still heartbroken. Sparks fly again when Stephanie reappears at his brother Dave's engagement party at the zoo. Dave (Nate Faxon) offers Griffin a job selling luxury cars at his dealership because "that's how you get girls like Stephanie."

Scared their beloved zookeeper will leave, the animals intervene, each getting the chance to offer its own wisdom, such as "separate her from the herd," "lead with your puddin' cup," which means something I can't write in a family newspaper.

More annoying than watching James fall down for the umpteenth time or the product placement of Red Bull cans, was the film's lack of continuity. It opens with a sweeping shot of Boston, coming in from the north over the Zakim Bridge and past the TD Garden. Later, a much larger body of water is CGI'd in the same location for another shot, suggesting the Garden is waterside.

Bits that pass as comedy are the ubiquitous Ken Jeong as a reptile guy named Venom, who talks like a gangsta and drives a pimped-out Mustang Cobra. Hasn't the statute of limitations on this guy expired yet?

The best moment the film offers takes place at a T.G.I. Friday's, where Griffin takes Bernie out for a night on the town. They jam to Flo Rida's "Low," slow-dance with girls and party with the crowd. It's the forlorn Bernie's first time out of his cage since the "attack" on another keeper, Dorchester-bred Donnie Wahlberg. "Fear Factor" host Joe Rogan plays James' rival for Stephanie's affections.

While "Zookeeper" is billed as a family comedy, the kids in the audience I saw it with weren't exactly going wild.


Dana Barbuto may be reached at dbarbuto@ledger.com.

ZOOKEEPER (PG for language, some rude/suggestive humor.) Cast includes Kevin James, Rosario Dawson and Leslie Bibb. Directed by Frank Coraci. 1 star out of 4.