Ugh, What Are We Going to Do with All This Extra Zoo?!? 

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We Bought a Zoo
Directed by Cameron Crowe

There are few movies I love more than a perfect Cameron Crowe film. He's made two, so far: the teenage romance Say Anything, which plays like a smarter and funnier John Hughes movie, and the autobiographical Almost Famous, which is less about being with the band than being obsessed with the band. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that both of them deal with growing up. Crowe's Elizabethtown, notable for its accidental self-definition as a fiasco (coining Nathan Rabin's My Year of Flops terminology over at The AV Club), struggled in bringing a big-hearted yet idiosyncratic romance to lost twentysomething characters, wedged uncomfortably between the teenagers of his best work and the coming-of-adult-age Tom Cruise he wrote towards in Jerry Maguire and Vanilla Sky. If Crowe's new film We Bought a Zoo catches on, it owes Elizabethtown a debt of gratitude. It's a worse movie in almost every way, but Elizabethtown's overreaching unwieldiness—its passionate fiasco-baiting—is nowhere to be found, which makes the equally clumsy and far less original Zoo looked like a model of restraint.

Given Crowe's sharp writing of familial relationships and obvious love of precocious children, it's strange that this is his first real family film. Matt Damon plays Benjamin Mee, a real-life writer/reporter who chronicled his actual zoo purchase (albeit in England, not the movie's California countryside) in a 2008 memoir. In the movie, Benjamin's wife has passed away, and he hopes that this wild gambit will bring him closer to rebellious son Dylan (Colin Ford) and adorable little daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). We have, then, a confident but soul-searching professional; a teenager who experiences stirrings of young love with a girl on the zoo grounds (Elle Fanning); and an adorable little kid. In short, some kind of Cameron Crowe supermovie.

There's nothing wrong with those director trademarks bordering on hallmarks, but Crowe has trouble placing all of his favorite material into a story that's also about refurbishing and maintaining a scrappy zoo. Part of the problem maybe that beyond adapting someone else's memoir, Crowe didn't even get first crack at the script; he's credited as co-screenwriter with Aline Brosh McKenna, a writer fond of rejiggering potentially interesting industries as bland allegories for the modern working woman, with a dash of wish-fulfillment on the side. As with the industries depicted in her Morning Glory and I Don't Know How She Does It, we don't learn much about how an amateur-owned zoo actually operates, beyond tidbits introduced for story convenience and, in the case of the sickly tiger Benjamin doesn't want to abandon, obvious metaphor. Oh, and it's really expensive. Feast upon the thrilling sight of Matt Damon repeatedly writing checks.

This material cries out for more detail; the most interesting character isn't a Mee family member at all, but rather Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), a no-nonsense zookeeper who has been managing animals for half of her twenty-eight years and has the social life, or lack thereof, to show for it. Johansson has never come off like such an adult onscreen, perhaps relieved that the camera only regards her beauty rather than ogling her incessantly, and the movie perks up every time she's onscreen, maybe because her relationship with the zoo is more interesting than any of the other characters' relationships to each other. The rest of the employees (including Crowe's Almost Famous alter ego, Patrick Fugit!) pass in a blur. Instead, the movie takes time for a romance between Ford and the best Fanning (so far; I can only assume there's someone even more preternatural and talented coming up behind her) that nonetheless barely registers. The Lily character has potential: she's a gawky home-schooled kid just delighted to meet someone her own age. But she has little screen time before pushing away from Dylan in order to manufacture conflict—an odd choice for a writer-director who can create such charming scenes of people relating to each other.

Tempting as it is to blame this sloppy writing on McKenna, much of it is unmistakably Crowe's. His dialogue still has its small moments of fussed-over delight; he loves making characters a little smarter, sharper, and more articulate than your average man on the street, but he doesn't have Aaron Sorkin's simultaneous impulses to worship oneupsmanship and prove that he's one of the smart guys in the room, too. He just plain loves his characters. But Crowe can still apparently turn out scenes just myopic as the worst of Sorkin's television work: at one point, one of the zoo staff mocks Damon by announcing him as "the most dangerous game... a [restless] boomer male." Hold up: Damon is just 41 in real life, and doesn't seem to be playing older in the movie; in terms of age—of actual, you know, generation—he and his character are unequivocal Xers.

The boomer here, of course, is Crowe himself: he may get the guy from Sigur Ros to do his score and throw in some My Morning Jacket on the soundtrack, but he's never more comfortable than when backing a scene with Bob Dylan or Neil Young. Yet in the past, Crowe has (like Dylan or Young) been able to avoid nostalgia-act status. His characters in Say Anything, Singles, and movies with boomer/Xer line-straddler Tom Cruise feel, to degrees, either out of step with their surroundings, or very much the product of a Generation X environment. Even William Miller (basically Crowe himself) in Almost Famous is more nerdy outcast than symbol of (or tribute to) his generation's much-vaunted love of rock and roll.

Maybe I missed the boomer shout-outs in those earlier movies because they weren't quite as explicit, or because I watched them through millennial-tinted glasses. At very least, those leanings didn't always feel so creaky and emphatic—not even in Elizabethtown, which climaxes with a history tour guided by classic-rock mix CD. It's as if being a dad, to Crowe, means moving past that specificity toward generational generalities everyone can enjoy. In We Bought a Zoo, keen soundtrack choices become just another set of distractions, extra ingredients that just sit there—like the shtick given to John Michael Higgins as a zoo inspector that lands at odds with what passes for the movie's tone.

That tone does have an agreeable warmth; for all of its flaws, the movie doesn't have the hollowness of cynical manipulation; Crowe remains a heartfelt writer, and an underrated director (the sun-dappled zoo grounds are gorgeously photographed). We Bought a Zoo has a lovely final scene, suffused with both loss and possibility while deftly calling back to a throwaway line from earlier in the film. If only it capped another movie entirely! As is, the sweet and well-chosen final moment has a surprisingly bitter aftertaste, especially following such a flavorless couple of hours.

Opens December 23

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