REVIEW: Cameron Crowe Tries, and Fails, to Freshen a Treacly Tale in We Bought a Zoo
Cameron Crowe can be a big old cheeseball, but he's never been a filmmaker to come across as cynical or calculatedly manipulative. That's one of the reasons We Bought a Zoo doesn't leave your heartstrings feeling brutally manhandled, despite being a treacly tale about how a widower in search of a fresh start buys and moves to a struggling animal park with his two beautiful, sad children. The other reason is Matt Damon, who underplays the role of still-grieving dad Benjamin Mee as much as possible and brings an edge of genuine frustration to his relationship with his teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford). Though overall the film's still as honey-toned as the golden sunshine that slants through most of its scenes, the occasional glimpse of a rough human edge means this isn't just an exercise in mawkishness, though it's also nowhere near as emotionally resonant as it strives to be.
We Bought a Zoo is based on a book by the real-life Mee, a former Guardian columnist who with his family bought and reopened the Dartmoor Zoological Park in southwestern England. The film transports the action to Southern California, where Damon's Benjamin finds himself unable to move on with his life, running into memories of his dead wife all over his Los Angeles neighborhood. He decides it's time for a move, and in his search for a new home for his family, he stumbles onto a gorgeous 18-acre space with a slight complication -- it's also a zoo that contains 200 animals, some endangered, and it has to be brought up to standard or dismantled.
Benjamin is a reporter at the LA Times and knows nothing about animal care, but one glimpse of his cherubic daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) communing with some peacocks and his mind's made up. He quits his journalism gig, packs up his kids and heads off to head up Rosemoor, a slightly shabby attraction that nevertheless boasts a bear, some tigers and love interests for both him and the sulky Dylan (the film's working title presumably being We Bought a Zoo and Some Girlfriends).
We Bought a Zoo is Crowe's first narrative film since the big-hearted mess that was 2005's Elizabethtown, and it finds the director working off an adapted screenplay originally written by Aline Brosh McKenna, the writer behind slightly cruel chick-flick fare like I Don't Know How She Does It, 27 Dresses and The Devil Wears Prada. The film has the feel of something deeply conventional that Crowe, who's also credited as a screenwriter, has tried with very mixed success to punch up with personality. The tentative start of a romance between Benjamin and his gruff, overworked zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), for instance, has a subdued, prickly sweetness once the pair get past her exasperation that a stranger has taken up as an apparent hobby something of great importance to her. But the puppy love that sparks between Dylan and Kelly's sheltered young cousin Lily (Elle Fanning) seems extraneous, other than as the latest showcase of how good Fanning is: She conjures out of little material a girl of heartbreaking vulnerability and openness.
Damon has already played one struggling but quietly heroic single father this year, with the stakes considerably higher in Contagion, and his clashes and reconciliations with Dylan are the film's strongest scenes, all-too-recognizable examples of how two people fight when they have more in common than they'd like to admit. It's unfortunate that so many other relationships in the film feel underdeveloped -- Thomas Haden Church, playing Benjamin's brother, is there to deliver exposition and offer doubt, Peter MacCready (Angus Macfadyen), who's developed the zoo's animal enclosures, is a broad caricature, and the glimpses we get of Benjamin's late spouse are glowingly idealized (best of luck competing with that, ScarJo).
Benjamin himself tends toward the blurry -- as a reporter, the film's introduction insists, he embarked on adventures around the world, but always as an observer. This is meant to be his first real adventure -- except running a zoo is a business, not a jaunt through the woods, and the magic fails to materialize. Instead, he finds himself having to do things like shell out bankruptcy-worthy amounts of money to fix up the park and make the difficult decision as to whether or not to put an aging, ailing animal to sleep (a call the movie clumsily tries to connect with his need to let go of the memory of his wife).
We Bought a Zoo is the story of a nice guy, which is the kind of story in which Crowe has specialized. But despite moments of promise it never kicks into gear, never gets us attached to either the animal park or the family trying to save it. and never convinces us of the wild moment of giddy conviction needed to make a decision like the one in the title. Buy a zoo? Unlikely. Sublet, maybe.
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