Saturday, January 7, 2012

We Bought a Zoo Movie Review

Oh Cameron Crowe! Where, oh where did you go? Once upon a time you made movies I really enjoyed. now I have to return to my copies of Say Anything and Almost Famous for a taste of your past glory. Maybe it’s me who’s changed and I no longer fall for the genial affability of your characters wrapped up in kitschy sentiment. Crowe’s latest serving of pop sentimentality is based on a memoir by Benjamin Mee. That the film is “based on a true story” makes me dislike it even more as that’s generally a red flag that it’s trying to absolve itself of criticism by virtue of the fact that it really happened.

We Bought a Zoo is about a thrill-seeking journalist played by Matt Damon who, in the wake of his wife’s death, quits his job and uses his dad’s inheritance money to buy an 18 acre farm that is home to a defunct and dilapidated zoo. His older brother (Thomas Hayden Church, channeling his character from Sideways), drawing on his own experiences, warns Benjamin not to engage in simple escapism. But there wouldn’t be much of a story if he didn’t forge ahead with a project that would ultimately become life-affirming and self-actualizing. And by the way, it will also help his teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford) in the end, a youth whose social troubles are signaled, with no sense of irony whatsoever, by his propensity for creating art that is morbid in nature. “Why can’t he express himself with less disturbing images,” his obtuse art teacher laments. I’m not making this up. This is Crowe’s idea of how to depict a teenager with issues.

Benjamin also has a daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). She is cut from the same mold as Jonathan Lipnicki in Jerry Maguire, as shameless tug at audiences’ hearts that was later lampooned by Aaron Sorkin in “The West Wing” of all places. She’s one of these characters that doesn’t speak at all like a child – even a precocious child – speaks. She sounds like a screenwriter (in this case Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna) created a little girl who could be both conscience and voice of reasoned simplicity for her troubled dad. She’s always got the right thing to say and it’s always SO adorable! But I resent the notion that life is so simple, it’s just adults who complicate everything and we need an innocent to ground us. Please! Dorothy was a child who was whisked away to a fantasy world and when she awoke she’d gleaned a greater appreciation for her reality. Did Crowe learn nothing from The Wizard of Oz?

The cast is filled out by the oddballs who maintain the zoo. They are led by head zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson). Do you suppose a beautiful young actress was cast for some reason other than having a romantic interest for our leading man? Like father, like son – Dylan is provided a little love interest in Kelly’s niece Lily (Elle Fanning). There’s also Peter (Angus Macfadyen) as a hard-drinking no-nonsens Scotsman who has an old grudge against Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins), the government inspector who needs to give his approval for the zoo to open to the public. Here is a man so officious he comes across as little more than a cartoon distraction from the drama at the center of the film, which is really about a family coping with tremendous loss. Why populate a story that’s based on fact with unbelievable characters? It seems to undermine the whole project and makes it all feel quite uneven.

Thankfully Crowe gets the most important relationship in the film dead right. The interaction and dialogue between Benjamin and Dylan is perfect and the only thing in the movie that struck me as being even close to genuine. This is a relationship between two men who don’t know how to speak to one another, although they each desperately want and need to. The scene when tensions finally reach a breaking point for these two was some of the finest family drama writing I’ve heard and also some of Damon’s finest acting.

As usual, thanks to Crowe’s history as a rock journalist, the film is peppered with great rock songs including Tom Petter, Bob Dylan and Neil Young. However, it’s not enough to save this middling success from feeling like it was made on auto pilot.

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