Review: We Bought a Zoo
PLOT: After his wife dies, Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) decides to relocate his family - consisting of fourteen-year-old Dylan (Colin Ford) and five-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) - and buy, a run-down Southern California Zoo. Determined to give his new life a go, Benjamin now has to contend 200 ornery animals, mounting bills, his rebellious son, and a misfit staff of zoo-keepers, including a young zoologist (Scarlet Johansson) who quickly warms to the idealistic Mee.
REVIEW: As far as I’m concerned, Cameron Crowe is the great heart of American cinema. I’ve always found it funny that Crowe idolizes the great Billy Wilder, as the cynical edge that characterized Wilder’s work is nowhere to be seen in any of Crowe’s films. Crowe is many things, but a cynic is not one of them, and his films are refreshing in their brazen humanity. If Crowe’s films radiate one thing, it’s kindness, which is something not a lot of filmmakers can claim.
Of his six previous films, one’s a masterpiece (ALMOST FAMOUS), two others are close to that (SAY ANYTHING, JERRY MAGUIRE), two others (SINGLES, VANILLA SKY), while maligned upon their initial release, get better with each passing year, and one’s a disaster (ELIZABETHTOWN).
After five years, Crowe’s finally back with WE BOUGHT A ZOO, and significantly, he’s directing from someone else’s script with his sharing a writing credit with hotshot screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (DEVIL WEARS PRADA, MORNING GLORY). And herein lies the problem with the film…
Now, I have no idea how much of the final script belongs to McKenna, and how much belongs to Crowe, but to me there seemed to be a massive clash of storytelling styles throughout the film. Part of it works wonderfully. Everything revolving around Damon, Johansson, Thomas Hayden Church, the cute-as-a-button daughter, and the zoo staff are superb. Damon once again shows that he’s probably the best representation of the modern everyman working in film, with him able to bounce between action (THE BOURNE’S), quirky character work (TRUE GRIT), drama (HEREAFTER), and now family comedy without missing a beat. As Mee, Damon is incredibly likable, and the character’s idealism fits beautifully into Crowe’s cannon.
Scarlet Johansson is just as good as the kind zoologist who helps Damon get the zoo back on its feet. One of the big complaints about ELIZABETHTOWN is that Kirsten Dunst seemed to be playing more of an idealized version of the so-called “manic pixie dream-girl” archetype, than a real person, but Johansson is nothing of the sort. Her character is a fully formed person with her own insecurities and baggage, and refreshingly the inevitable romance with Damon’s character is totally downplayed throughout. The possibility of a romance is always there, but Crowe, to his credit, never tries to force the romance down our throats, as that would have taken away from Mee’s grief over his late wife.
Probably my favourite part of the film is how Crowe portrays the zoo staff, including Patrick Fugit from ALMOST FAMOUS, and a fantastic turn by Angus Macfadyen as the ornery chief zookeeper, with a penchant for booze and (naturally for a Crowe film) classic rock. Nobody - NOBODY - does peripheral characters as well as Crowe, and the zookeepers here are as likable as the Band-Aid’s, and Stillwater hangers-on from ALMOST FAMOUS. In fact, one of the big problems from ELIZABETHTOWN was that the peripheral characters in that film were FAR more interesting than the leads, but Crowe strikes a good balance here, mostly due to the perfectly cast Damon and Johansson.
Thomas Hayden Church also pops up as Damon’s pragmatic, but ultimately supportive older brother. In fact, it’s his mini, LOCAL HERO–style arc (which Crowe has gone on record as stating is his favorite film) that stayed with me the most afterwards.
But, what keeps WE BOUGHT A ZOO from being another Crowe classic is a rather considerable instance of miscasting that comes close (at times) to sinking the film. Colin Ford, as Damon’s rebellious son, just doesn’t work in the role. Now, it’s not nice to pick on a fourteen-year-old for his acting, and truthfully, he’s not bad. He just doesn’t fit into the Crowe vibe at all, and his whiny tirades against his father felt false, and at their worst were like nails on chalkboard. Perhaps the writing of these scenes is to blame, which is the stylistic clash that comes close to ruining the film. I was never convinced that his behavior was motivated by grief over his mother’s death, and he just comes off as a brat. Crowe could have completely excised the role from the script, and WE BOUGHT A ZOO would have been superb. Not having read the script, I can’t really assign the blame to McKenna, but it felt false in a way Crowe’s films never have felt before.
It seems like some kind of effort to bring the character into the Crowe vibe was made by having him take up with Elle Fanning’s character, playing the kind of sunny Crowe love-interest that he excels in crafting. Still, it felt like she was tacked on to round out Ford’s character, and it’s totally extraneous to the plot.
Other than that (which, sadly, is a pretty big flaw), WE BOUGHT A ZOO works wonderfully, although it could be argued that Jónsi’s (of Sigur Ros) score is a little overwhelming in its “tugging at the heartstrings” vibe but that’s a minor thing, and the music is still pretty.
I struggled over my rating for WE BOUGHT A ZOO for hours after seeing the film, and part of me wants to give it a 6 for the way Ford’s character almost torpedo’s the film. After thinking about it, I’ve reasoned that a 6 would be too harsh for a film I really enjoyed for the most part. In the end, the whole of the film gets a 7, but there are parts of the film that are far better than that. Don’t be fooled by the MARLEY & ME style posters and trailers: this is quite a bit better, and Crowe hasn’t been shoehorned into a tacky studio tear-jerker. Thomas Hayden Church’s final line in the film perfectly sums up Crowe’s approach to the film, when he says “I like the animals, but I love the people.” So do I Cameron…
|Extra Tidbit:||In another nod to LOCAL HERO, Peter Riegert shows up as Damon's boss early in the film. LOCAL HERO is a really great film, and well worth checking out if you haven't had the pleasure.|