There is a now-clichéd Tom Cruise speech in Cameron Crowe’s 1996 megahit, Jerry Maguire, which begins: “We live in a cynical world.” While the merits of that film, and that line, are now debatable, there is one unquestionable truth in Cruise’s statement: it truly sums up Cameron Crowe’s directorial ethos. Crowe believes that cynicism abounds and it is up to good people to rail against it. The entirety of Crowe’s canon, from his debut Say Anything to his masterpiece Almost Famous (and even the tepid Elizabethtown), are films that challenge the very notion of snarky post-modern cynicism. Crowe’s latest film, We Bought a Zoo, continues that tradition of sweet positivity in a world dominated by bleak outlooks and low expectations.
We Bought a Zoo tells the story of recently widowed Benjamin Mee who, along with his children, sets upon the task of purchasing, repairing and running a dilapidated zoo. The film is based on the true story of a family who purchased a zoo in England – though Crowe’s film is set in California and apparently takes other dramatic liberties quite freely. The Mees are played by Matt Damon who is reliably likable, handsome and believable as Benjamin the patriarch-in-mourning, Colin Ford (as Dylan) who often looks uncannily similar to Damon and Maggie Elizabeth Jones as Rosie, Benjamin’s young daughter. The children are both good in their roles as kids dealing with an unimaginable loss. Damon’s Benjamin is a adventurous and driven man who is seen in the beginning of the film as a globetrotting, international journalist. Mee’s love for thrills and distaste for normalcy make him more of a fatherly icon as opposed to an involved and active dad. The loss of his wife causes Mee to reexamine his priorities and he decides to quit his job, relocate to the country and ultimately to purchase a zoo that was closed for lack of funding. Young Rosie loves the idea of the fresh start amongst the menagerie but the older, teenage Dylan is incensed and spends his time making disturbing drawings of death and destruction. The film chronicles Benjamin’s struggles to reconnect with Dylan, win the favor of the zoo’s quirky staff, and learn his new caretaker trade – all while he blows through all of the family’s savings to bring the zoo up to code.
Overall We Bought a Zoo is a success. Audiences will like the Mees and the zoo’s bizarre staff. The animals, especially an old tiger, become real characters due to Crowe’s adept direction. There are also entertaining performances by Thomas Hayden Church as Benjamin’s nay-saying, oversexed, brother and John Michael Higgins as Walter Ferris – a man who takes his job as USDA zoo inspector too seriously. Where We Bought a Zoo fails though is in its love story. Scarlett Johansson, who plays the head zookeeper, is likable and ought to have been a great foil for Damon’s sad dad. However, she is not sexy in this role and portrays her character as oddly icy. Though her lips are eminently kissable, in every scene, Johansson’s sex appeal vanishes in We Bought a Zoo and, by the time she and Damon are supposedly in love, few viewers will be truly convinced of their bond. Also, for most viewers, the line: “all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage” will feel trite – no matter how often or passionately it is repeated. Romance and catch phrases aside, Crowe has learned from his past mistakes. The kids in We Bought a Zoo are fully fleshed-out characters and not merely cute robot parrots like Jonathan Lipnicki’s squinty one-liner machine in Jerry Maguire. Crowe also gives We Bought a Zoo a plot – something that his previous film, Elizabethtown, suffered for lack of.
The 2011 holiday movie season will bring viewers David Fincher’s take on the The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – a film dealing with rape, unchecked misogyny and abuse, an adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s highly overrated (read: exploitative) 9/11 novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and War Horse – a Steven Spielberg film about a horse surviving the horrors of WWI. Amidst all that violence, destruction and sadness, We Bought a Zoo can be seen as a cinematic breath of fresh air. It is a film for those who like Cameron Crowe want a break from cynicism and seek something that aspires to our better angels. While We Bought a Zoo is an imperfect film it is definitely entertaining and a solid return-to-form for Crowe. At the very least We Bought a Zoo features arguably the best film soundtrack of 2011, playing over gorgeous shots of exotic animals which, for many, will be worth the price of admission alone.
Rating: 3/5 Stars. We Bought a Zoo opens December 23rd.