Sunday, June 10, 2012

We Bought a Zoo

Director: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Patrick Fugit, Colin Ford, Elle Fanning, Angus Macfadyen, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, John Michael Higgins, Peter Riegert, Carla Gallo
Running Time: 124 min.
Rating: PG

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

We Bought a Zoo is the kind of movie you like because you'd almost feel guilty not liking it. Or at least I would. While that may not exactly seem like the most glowing of recommendations, it actually is. Cameron Crowe just might be the only filmmaker capable of doing this unironically and succeeding. It's a gift. Precocious kids. Cute animals. A villain who would be twirling a mustache if he had one. And of course Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens and Neil Young are thrown onto the soundtrack for no reason other than that Crowe loves them. Every beat in the plot is predictable, there aren't any surprises to be found, and yet, it all works. His movies have this magical quality of transcending any kind of assembly line approach to film criticism. With Crowe, the whole always ends up being greater than the sum of its parts and when it's over all you remember is the whole. It's tempting to resent him for it, but you can't. He just gets you every time.

This effort marks his first full-length feature return after going on a six-year hiatus following the release of the widely reviled Elizabethtown. He had nothing to apologize for with that. If it was a colossal mistake, at least it's one only he could have the talent to make and deserves respect for having the guts to put himself out there in such an embarrassingly personal and sentimental way. Upon recently re-watching it, I still say the first 10 minutes of that movie mark what maybe his finest hour, with the rest not being too bad either. But it's strangely fitting how it's plot (particularly that opening) foretold the public's reaction to it. Adapted from Benjamin Mee's 2008 memoir, We Bought a Zoo is as equally sentimental and lacking in cynicism. Not as gloriously messy or personal as that previous effort, it's certainly slighter and more conventional, which could stem from the fact that Crowe only co-wrote the screenplay.  Matt Damon plays Benjamin, a struggling journalist still grieving the recent loss of his wife when he packs up 7-year-old Rosie (an adorable Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and moody teen son Dylan (Colin Ford) in an effort to start fresh in a new home. That home is located on the grounds of the dilapidated Rosemoor Animal Park and after ignoring his own initial hesitation and warnings from older brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), Benjamin caves and buys the zoo, much to Rosie's delight and Dylan's resentment. With no experience he must rely on the close-knit staff lead by head zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) to get the park up to code in time for re-opening, even as he struggles to keep his family together in the wake of his wife's passing and come to terms with their new life. 

No one will ever accuse this film of being unpredictable, which is fine since it's not really supposed to be. What Crowe always excels at is once again on display, manufacturing a sense of community onscreen with the characters, so in that respect it's easy to see why he gravitated toward this material. It probably has the least amount of depth of anything he's tackled and in a way that's a relief because with the bar set so low we find out what he can do with a story that in any other filmmaker's hands would have seemed like pure manipulative schmaltz. Just that very term implies dishonesty and whatever accusations have been hurled at Crowe from his critics, even they'd admit that label won't stick. He's too sincere for that.

From fade in we know there's a pretty good chance this zoo, its animals and its employees will change he and his kids' lives. Benjamin and Kelly will probably fall for each other. He and son Dylan will have a screaming match over his mother's death. Dylan will crush hard over Kelly's home-schooled niece Lily (Elle Fanning). The nasty zoo inspector ( a suitably slimy John Michael Higgins) will threaten to shut them down. They'll be a final act crisis. No viewer could doubt for a second that the zoo won't be ready on opening day. None of these can even be considered spoilers. And I was still absorbed every step of the way, due mostly to Matt Damon's surprisingly moving performance. Pudgy and disheveled, he strangely resembles Philip Seymour Hoffman in appearance while giving off a normal, every guy vibe that recalls '90's era Tom Hanks. There's this huge scene involving a sick tiger and it's almost scary how good he is in it, subtly suggesting things the script is trying to hit us over the head with. He's handed some pretty sappy stuff, but he somehow makes it ring completely true with his earnestness. And isn't it about time to acknowledge few actor have come as far or improved as much in the past decade as he has? With wildly varied performances of late in the Bourne franchise, The Informant!, True Grit, Hereafter and Contagion and good case could be made he's one of the best working right now.

When casting the role of a zookeeper, Scarlett Johansson doesn't exactly jump out at you as an inspired choice, but who would have guessed that she should have? Leave it up to Crowe to finally come with the idea of casting her as someone other than the sexpot. Watching this it hit me what the problem's been with her career: She's never plays a regular person. Here she plays kind of a nerd and she's actually really good at it. It isn't a particularly deep supporting part but it's a different one for her and exactly the kind she should start taking more often. It's also one of Crowe's more mature and intellectually developed female characters, providing a respite from the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" type that usually exists in his universe to rescue the male protagonist.

A scene-stealing Thomas Haden Church gets a few good zingers in as Benjamin's droll, skeptical brother, despite not getting nearly enough screen time and leaving me wondering when someone will let him headline his own movie.The rest of the cast also gets the job done, as Elle Fanning plays Lily as a long ways off from the wise-beyond-her-years teen she portrayed in Super 8. She supposedly based her performance as a socially awkward, immature farm girl on Taylor Swift, an unintentionally hilarious detail that also makes entirely too much sense. Angus MacFadyen as the crazed, bearded zoo carpenter and Almost Famous' Patrick Fugit as some employee with a pet monkey are mostly relegated to the sidelines but flesh out the cast nicely enough. In the case of Fugit, you can't help but feel disappointed that this marks his long overdue reunion with Crowe since he isn't given much of anything to do at all.

Like any other of his films, Crowe's soundtrack is jam-packed with those aforementioned classic rock favorites as well as a few newer songs that sound like classic rock favorites. In this outing more than any other except Elizabethtown, the musical selections really calls attention to itself. I'm still trying to figure out whether that's good or bad, but have settled on mostly good since it doesn't necessarily harm the film any and for my money no writer/director has better taste in music.  The whimsical score composed by Jonsi fits the tone even better, or at least as well as some of Crowe's most successful collaborations with ex-wife Nancy Wilson, who's surprisingly not missed too much here.

While this seems to be one of the more dispensable Crowe efforts, there's still enough behind it that it co-exists nicely with the other work in his filmography, proving to an extent that he hasn't lost a step.  The commercials and trailers have sold We Bought a Zoo as a sappy family film and while that isn't necessarily untrue, it's also decidedly more adult than expected, intelligently dealing with family, love and loss in a way that doesn't feel too manipulative or insulting. Crowe's always been an expert at pulling audience's emotional strings, but at least he has enough guts and integrity to unapologetically tell us to our faces that he's doing it.

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