Matt Damon is Bourne free, as free as the wind blows, as free as the grass grows…
[Editor’s Note: While I do most of the reviewing around here, Jackson got a jump on the latest from Cameron Crowe so he can do the honors.]
We Bought a Zoo is an emotionally engaging crowd-pleaser, featuring touching performances and moments that resonate. But, it’s also a further decline from greatness for co-writer and director Cameron Crowe who imbues the film with an overabundance of his usual directorial touches. The styles and sensibilities that Crowe perfected on his Oscar-winning masterpiece Almost Famous are used here to a degree and in a manner that all too often ventures into indulgence and self-parody.
Based on the memoir of the same name by Benjamin Mee, Zoo is the story of a man who, following the death of his wife, buys a once-functional zoo that comes with a host of animals and staff. Crowe and co-writer Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada) give their actors touching emotional moments to play, and create memorable dialogue that deftly walks the line between comedy and tragedy. Oscar-winner Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting) elevates the role of the troubled widower, using his charisma to fill the screen with humor and warmth, and his dramatic skills to create memorable scenes of pathos and familial drama.
As Mee surveys his newly purchased zoo, he meets zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) and her 13-year-old cousin Lily (Elle Fanning) who also helps with the zoo’s upkeep. Just as Johansson’s character is fodder for Damon’s, Fanning’s is fodder for Mee’s son Dylan (Colin Ford). Johansson and Fanning both more or less fit into the box of Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a role played in previous Crowe films by Kate Hudson and Kirsten Dunst. Although the women in Crowe’s films have played these roles successfully, this time around, the audience already knows exactly where these relationships are going, without any element of tension or suspense. While the younger Mee’s relationship is filled with just enough sensuality and sweetness, Crowe can’t seem to figure how the wants to treat the relationship between a forty-something widower with two kids and a woman played by Johansson.
The most memorable performance is delivered by Maggie Elizabeth Jones, who plays Mee’s seven-year-old daughter Rosie. While it might be easy for a child of her age and disposition to steal scenes just by being cute, Jones brings a comedic timing and sensitivity that makes her just as much of a force on-screen as any of her adult co-stars. She ends up being the most genuinely crowd-pleasing aspect of the film, and one of the most memorable.
Despite the solid performances, the film falters early on when Crowe’s musical selections begin with Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” This is the first of several such moments in the film (another being a placement of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” that can only be described as bizarre) where the musical selection in tone and/or subject matter is at odds with the narrative currently taking place. In case you’ve forgotten that you’re watching A Cameron Crowe Film, Crowe is all too happy to fill the dialogue of his adolescent characters with references to Bob Dylan. Though Crowe said a decade ago that making Almost Famous was his way of putting his box of Rock n’ Roll mementos away, that has apparently been reopened in full force. Here’s hoping it can soon go back in the closet.
After a shaky start, We Bought a Zoo descends into true mediocrity in the second actas Crowe takes his characters to the bittersweet and melancholy place where the characters of his films often spend most of their time. The film falters where Crowe’s other films have succeeded, because he gives this one over to holiday family-film schmaltz instead of invention and self-exploration. Happy endings are fine, especially around the holidays, but a numbness sets in when the happy ending in question is predictable, and not entirely earned. Here, even the most effective moments feel as if they’re just moving the audience one step closer to the inevitable.
Though We Bought a Zoo may be a serviceable choice for the whole family this holiday season, if you missed the opportunity to see Hugo over Thanksgiving (which based on its Box Office, chances are you did), you’d be better off taking the family to see that gem of a film, instead of seeing the once incredible Crowe wither into blandness.