After his misadventures with Elizabethtown and Vanilla Sky, writer-director Cameron Crowe, who also gave us Almost Famous and Jerry Maguire, returns with a slice of perfectly good-natured and harmless family entertainment. Unfortunately, We Bought a Zoo is formulaic, fluffy, politically hypercorrect and dreamy (literally, at times, like some distorted version of reality). It made me fear I had accidentally walked into a Nicholas Sparks adaptation, especially as the relentless onslaught of pop tunes (a Crowe trademark, of course) failed to feel like anything but artificial sweetener.
The story is simple and therefore lends itself well to another Crowe trademark: the pithy aphorism designed to underscore the central action (make it cast a longer shadow if you will). Remember this one from Vanilla Sky: “Every passing minute is another chance to turn it all around”? A reworking of it appears here: “All you need is 20 seconds of insane courage, and I promise something great will come of it.” And then, when the sceptics and doubters call you out on your lack of experience with their endless ‘why? why? why?’, you just go ‘why not?’ and smile and keep walking (though I must admit that this slogan achieves a nice effect in the film’s very last scene).
The central action unfolds around Matt Damon’s character Benjamin Mee, a recent widower and likeable family father who quits his job as an LA broadsheet columnist because the readers have grown disinterested in his “adventure reports” on hurricanes and killer bees. He is done with staged adventures, one might say, and at a whim decides to take on a real one (the artless title is of course a clue here).
Heeding his older brother Duncan’s advice to weave “true joy” into life’s spiritual pattern, Benjamin, sensing a way through crippling grief and longing for his wife, takes the kids – a girl and a boy (Ford) aged seven and 14 – for a fresh start nine miles from the city. Duncan – routinely but amusingly played by the inimitable Church – insists on the complete insanity of buying a dilapidated zoo full of exotic and dangerous animals, but that is what Benjamin does, emphasising instead the insane courage of this “authentic American experience.’ To quote from Duncan’s advice to his kid brother: “Travel the stages of grief but stop just before zebras get involved.”
At Rosemoor Animal Park, Benjamin and the kids get along decently with the park’s eccentric but competent staff, led by the pretty workaholic Kelly (Johansson). Naturally, for a former writer, dealing with poisonous snakes and deadly beasts is no picnic, and for a while business and the yet-to-be-convinced staff distract Benjamin from some serious problems concerning his relationship with his son. Not even the park’s other pretty female, Lily (Fanning), seems able to drag young Dylan away from his pastime of drawing morbid sketches and fantasising about the underworld – he too is grief-stricken, of course. The strained father-son relationship yields one of the few believable scenes in the film: a passionate heart-to-heart at top-volume. Ford and Damon both shine in this challenging scene, and Crowe reminds us that he still knows a thing or two about screen-writing. The funny outcome of this, when the yelling turns to small-talk about shaving, is worthy of Crowe’s better films.
It is quite true, as has been suggested, that this film would probably have been unwatchable with a Jim Carrey or Eddie Murphy in the lead. Its draw-by-numbers quality certainly brings them both to mind. The current line-up is, admittedly, hard to beat, but the film’s various heart-warming stories sadly fail to ring true in its atmosphere of idealistic platitudes and curdling cuteness.
We Bought a Zoo (7)
Dir: Cameron Crowe;
US dramedy, 2011, 124 mins; Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Patrick Fugit, Colin Ford, Elle Fanning, Angus Macfadyen, Peter Riegert
Premieres June 14