We Bought a Zoo (United States, 2011)December 21, 2011
After the twin disappointments of Vanilla Sky (which critics generally liked but the public did not) and Elizabethtown (which was equally dismissed by critics and the general movie-going populace), Cameron Crowe has hunkered down in relative obscurity for six years. He has recently emerged with the documentary Pearl Jam Twenty and a new feature film, We Bought a Zoo. Although the latter does not rank alongside Crowe's best, it is an improvement over Elizabethtown. Designed as a family film based on the memoirs of Benjamin Mee, We Bought a Zoo is heartfelt but safe. The missing element is the edgy irreverence that elevated Crowe's best directorial efforts - Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, and Almost Famous - above their generic counterparts.
The tone of We Bought a Zoo veers from feel-good to maudlin. Some of the problem may devolve from the original material, but Crowe's screenplay was not original - he re-wrote one credited to Aline Brosh McKenna, who claims an uneven body of work (her most recent movie: I Don't Know How She Does It, but she was also responsible for The Devil Wears Prada). The general sense of blandness and predictability that marks the story's progression does not damage its emotional strengths. We feel for these characters and, because we care about them, we yearn for the highs the film ultimately delivers.
When we first encounter Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), he is a recent widower caring for two children - seven-year old Rose (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and 14-year old Dylan (Colin Ford). When Dylan is expelled from school, Benjamin decides the best approach is a "fresh start" - pack up all their belongings and move to another location. His dream house turns out to be a zoo. Not knowing much about animals, he has no intention of purchasing the place until he notices how delighted Rose is by the surroundings. So, using all his savings, he takes the plunge, delighting his daughter and disgusting his son. The dilapidated zoo's inhabitants are cared for by a small group of die-hards, lead by zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), who are there more because of their love of animals than an expectation of getting rich. Benjamin, initially in over his head, grows to love the animals and feel something for Kelly as he lets go of his wife and prepares the zoo for its grand re-opening.
We Bought a Zoo, as is true of all Crowe's movies, is at its best when it concentrates on interpersonal relationships. For a dead woman, Katherine Mee (Stephanie Szostak) is a major player since her life and death cast long shadows over her husband and children. The movie is as much about the Mees re-connecting as it is about them buying and opening a zoo. The quasi-romance between Benjamin and Kelly finds the right tone. There's something there, but it's obviously too soon for Benjamin to be falling in love again, and the screenplay acknowledges it. There's also a cute coupling between moody Dylan and the Kelly's perky niece, Lily (Elle Fanning).
Matt Damon continues to astound with his range and willingness to expand his repertoire. Here's an actor who has headlined big-budget action films, quirky indies, comedies, and dramas, and has worked for with many of today's major film-making forces: Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Gus Van Sant, Anthony Minghella, Robert Redford, Steven Soderbergh, Frank Darabont, Terry Gilliam, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, and the Coen Brothers. Yet he disappears effortlessly into the character of Benjamin and imparts to him the "everyman" quality so often associated with Damon.
One could question whether Scarlett Johansson is miscast as Kelly. There's nothing wrong with her performance and she and Damon exhibit a degree of chemistry, but Johansson is almost too pretty to be credible as a borderline-misanthrope zookeeper. The rest of the eclectic supporting cast is fine, although John Michael Higgins' "villainous" inspector is too strongly a caricature. Thomas Hayden Church, who plays Bejamin's brother, Duncan, seems like the most "true" Crowe character in the film and is given the best lines.
As is always the case with Crowe, songs play an important role in establishing mood, although his choices here are less mainstream than in some of his earlier films (he relies heavily upon his composer, Jonsi, for the "sound"). There's also no signature moment in which a song is indelibly wedded to an event - no "In Your Eyes" or "Tiny Dancer." We Bought a Zoo may founder a little when it comes to its narrative trajectory but its emotional impact is on-course. For Crowe, it's a nice recovery from Elizabethtown and represents the first of his films families can attend (provided a few "shits" and a "dick" aren't grounds for disqualification). The hope is that this is the first step back to a return to form. Cinema in the '80s and '90s was better with the expectation that another Cameron Crowe film was in production.
We Bought a Zoo (United States, 2011)
Cast: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Colin Ford, Elle Fanning, Thomas Haden Church, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Angus MacFadyen, Patrick Fugit, John MIchael Higgins
Screenplay: Aline Brosh McKenna and Cameron Crowe, based on the book by Benjamin Mee
Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox