WE BOUGHT A ZOO
Directed by: Cameron Crowe
Written by: Cameron Crowe & Aline Brosch McKenna (screenplay), Benjamin Mee (novel)
Starring: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Elle Fanning, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, John Michael Higgins, Patrick Fugit, and Thomas Haden Church
Writer-Director Cameron Crowe is perhaps best known for delivering films with intense romantic sentimentality and fantastic soundtracks. While the former writer for Rolling Stone Magazine makes good on crafting a phenomenal soundtrack (with tunes from Jónsi, Cat Stevens, Neil Young, and Tom Petty), and romanticism is there in spades, his newest film WE BOUGHT A ZOO lacks the true inspiration that could make it extraordinary. Nonetheless, the film holds quite a few sweet spots. It’s a charming and joy-inducing crowd pleaser that’s never cloying.
Benjamin Mee is an adventurer by nature. He’s a writer who has interviewed dangerous dictators and flown into the eye of Hurricane Charlie. However, life has chosen a new adventure for Benjamin – one that’s not been assigned by an editor at a news desk. After the death of his cancer stricken wife (played in flashbacks by Stephanie Szostak), city living starts to interfere with Benjamin’s altered lifestyle. His son Dylan (Colin Ford) gets expelled from school after his dark painting lands him in trouble with the administration. Benjamin’s daughter Rosie (played by the cute-as-a-button Maggie Elizabeth Jones) isn’t faring much better as the too-close-for-comfort neighbors interrupt her sleep. In an effort to start anew, Benjamin buys a fixer-upper farmhouse in the boonies (nine miles from the closest Target) that happens to be situated on eighteen acres and…. a Zoo. If his life prior to this purchase wasn’t already a Zoo, it literally will be now! Ben proclaims “The animals need to be rescued,” but really it’s the fractured Mee family in need of rescue.
The Rosemoor Zoo is run by head groundskeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), who’s far too gorgeous to work there (she’s called gorgeous over and over) let alone complain about man troubles. She’s aided by a ragtag bunch: Handyman Peter MacCready (Angus Macfadyen), animal trainer Robin Jones (Patrick Fugit), cook (and ahem, love interest for Dylan) Lily (Elle Fanning), and head office clerk Rhonda (Carla Gallo). Together this new family weathers the storms of dwindling funds, animal misbehavior and, of course, grief.
Writers Crowe and Aline Brosh-McKenna (THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA) give us extremely likeable and richly developed characters, but the dialogue lacks that certain whip smart sparkle we expect from the man that gave us such memorable lines as “You had me at hello,” “I was just nowhere near your neighborhood,” and “I’m a golden god!” At times, this feels like a watered down FIELD OF DREAMS. Audiences may also find their patience tested as there are far too many convenient and contrived events that occur. The third act of ZOO hits the rinse-repeat button on the emotional cycle with their predictable “We’re not going to make it… wait a second… yes, we are!” manipulations. However, there’s a lot of craft and clever choices too. Parallels between the relationships of father and son, as well as animal and human are well thought out and well placed. Spar (the elderly tiger at the Zoo) represents Benjamin’s need to hang onto hope no matter what the cost. His journey is that he needs to let go. And when Benjamin finally does allow himself to grieve, it’s a watershed (and waterworks) moment.
For Crowe, WE BOUGHT A ZOO is a nice recovery from the mess that was ELIZABETHTOWN; however, it doesn’t come close to the brilliance of SINGLES or JERRY MAGUIRE. There’s plenty to be swept away by here, and if you surrender to it, you’ll come away moved and entertained.
WE BOUGHT A ZOO opens in theaters nationwide on December 23.