Remember when Cameron Crowe used to be cool? Oh sure, he still corners the market on kickass movie soundtracks and for a lot of people he’s still able to coast on the memories of films past, but it’s been a lot of years since he’s graced us with films as smart or genuine-feeling as Fast Times at Ridgemont High (which he only wrote), Say Anything, Singles or Almost Famous.
With his latest, We Bought a Zoo, Crowe is making his first try at family-friendly fare and the unfortunate elephant in the room is that the film, while sweet enough to elicit the odd misty eye, is completely lacking in the type of substance or nuance that Crowe has brought to his earlier works. This is pure, 100-proof schmaltz of the very worst (or best if you’re in the right mood/a grandmother) kind.
Adapted from Benjamin Mee’s 2008 memoir, the story follows Mee (Matt Damon) as he attempts to rebuild a life for his children Dylan (Colin Ford) and Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) after the death of his wife six months prior. Benjamin, a freelance writer who previously travelled around the globe indulging his adrenalin junkie tendencies is now floundering as a single parent. He and Dylan are constantly clashing, the neighbourhood single Moms are circling him like sharks, his brother (the reliably peckish Thomas Haden Church) is encouraging him to move on and his job at a local newspaper seems to be going nowhere.
When Dylan gets expelled from school, Benjamin decides a fresh start is in order and after an exhaustive house search, he comes across a remote farm house that comes with a dilapidated zoo full of animals that are set to be disposed of if someone doesn’t commit to getting the zoo back up to code and ready to open to the public. Challenge accepted.
Dylan balks at leaving his friends behind but Rosie, in predictable adorable movie moppet fashion, embraces the idea wholly, taking every opportunity available to exclaim the film’s title with the proper inflection: “We bought a ZOOOOOOOOOOO!”
The trio move into the ramshackle house and acquaint themselves with the selfless bunch of zoo workers (Scarlett Johansson, Angus Macfadyen, Patrick Fugit, Elle Fanning) who think he’s crazy for taking on the project that’s sure to ruin him financially.
As the date of their inspection grows closer, Benjamin et al overcome various roadblocks, both figurative and literal (and various degrees of predictability), and slowly but surely he and his kids come to grips with their profound grief.
The cadences of the film are admittedly soothing, providing inspirational highs and contrived lows, all of them weathered by Damon with a congenial, confident charm that proves there’s little he can’t make palatable on screen. It’s just too bad that Crowe and co-writer Aline Brosh McKenna (I Don’t Know How She Does It, 27 Dresses) didn’t think to create characters that aren’t painted by broad strokes and about as accessible as Mee’s menagerie are in their gilded enclosures.
Just as its high-concept title suggests, the film is unapologetically literal in its approach, leaving no room for the dramatic heft that naturally accompanies not knowing how every beat of the story is going to play out. We get glimpses of genuine emotion, particularly in a scene where Benjamin and Dylan scream out their differences, but most of the time the movie relies on mugging monkeys and tree-hugging psychobabble to usher the story along.
In short, We Bought a Zoo is all bore and no roar, and while it’s certainly not the worst of Crowe’s career (that honour goes to either Elizabethtown or Vanilla Sky), it’s far from earning its stripes as a worthy successor to his earlier films.