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We Bought a Zoo
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by Brett Gallman

"If you must see Matt Damon play a widower this year, watch Contagion."
3 stars

“We Bought a Zoo” feels like a movie that’s at odds with itself; much of the film is so cloying and obvious that it’s difficult to believe that Cameron Crowe directed it. He’s a guy that I think has made some genuinely affecting films and is one of the few people to rival John Hughes in his ability to tap into the malaise of adolescence and young adulthood--stuff like “Say Anything,” “Singles,” and “Almost Famous” are seminal films in that respect. And you can see some of that authenticity in his latest film in small moments that are like a lifeboat in a saccharine sea, and the result ultimately feels like a made for Hallmark movie directed by Crowe.

I can’t help but wonder if Crowe managed to squeeze those moments into the screenplay himself; he apparently did a polish on Aline Brosh McKenna’s original script, which was based off of Benjamin Mee’s memoir about how he and his two children did, in fact, buy a zoo in England. The film gives this story a Hollywood spin by moving it to America and turning it into a story of how Mee (Matt Damon) finds himself a widower, left with to raise two children (Colin Ford and Maggie Elizabeth Jones) after a life of globe-hopping as a journalist. Since he’s haunted by the memory of his wife and because his son Dylan gets expelled from school, he brashly decides to move the family out of town--anywhere will do apparently.

They eventually settle on this quaint house out in the middle of nowhere; it’s entirely perfect except for the roaring animals outside. In order to move in, Mee has to take the zoo that comes with it, but at least it comes fully staffed, with the lead zookeeper being Scarlett Johansson (suddenly the deal seems a little better). Typical antics follow--Mee and his family have trouble adjusting to rural life (as someone who actually does live in a rural wasteland, I couldn’t help but chuckle at their horror that the nearest Target is nine whole miles away), Dylan gets moody and angsty at this fate, the cute daughter does cute things with the peacocks (and repeats the film’s title a couple of times), and some other animals escape.

For the most part, it feels like they’ve moved into a place that falls under the metaphorical term of the word “zoo.” Almost all of the human inhabitants are zany oddballs that are one step above cartoon characters, including the smarmy zoo inspector, whom I expected to be wearing a monocle and twirling a mustache. His rivalry with one of the zookeepers is so heated that the latter actually has to be locked in a room when he arrives on an unexpected visit; this is one of many ludicrous moments that allow you to surmise that liberties may have been taken with the original story.

Meanwhile, it feels like the actors involved in the main through-line (Damon, Johansson, and Ford) are reading from a different script, one that’s concerned with a poignant story of healing, understanding, and moving on from grief. While all of this stuff couldn’t be more on the nose if it tried (Benjamin’s inability to move forward is represented by his inability to cycle through old pictures of his wife on his Mac), we can at least feel Crowe’s touch here. It helps that Damon can’t help but bring a sort of quiet dignity to the proceedings; despite being one of this generation’s finest actors, he’s never had this huge, unconquerable “movie star” persona, which is a boon when it comes to roles like this. He brings a relatable empathy to Benjamin Mee and crafts a weary everyman out of a guy who was once a brazen journalist that hung out with world dictators and visited active volcanoes.

Johansson is stuck playing a pseudo-spinster workaholic; her sexiness is downplayed and instead traded in for a cozy everydayness, making her the girl who lives next door (to the zoo, of course). There’s little doubt where her relationship with Benjamin will go, just as there’s no doubt that Benjamin’s moody teenage son will develop a sweet little friendship with her cousin (Elle Fanning) that will allow him to quit drawing decapitated heads out of teenage angst. Likewise, a subplot involving an aging tiger will play out exactly as you expect--it’s the script’s big red button that deploys a missile aimed directly at your heartstrings.

And that’s pretty much what “We Bought a Zoo” is: a succession of “aww” moments meant to send you out of the theater with a smile that’s been manipulated onto your face from the opening moments. I liked some of its aspects in a vacuum; along with Damon and Johansson, Thomas Hayden Church is enjoyable as Mee’s older brother, a breezy guy who speaks with the inflection of a surfer dude. The thrust of the story is similarly delightful, as it’s hard to dislike something that involves animal conservation and Matt Damon playing a widower.

Crowe seems to be hedging that bet; he knows the story has done the legwork for him, so he gussies it up with some classic rock tracks (which is sadly becoming his auteur's stamp, I think) and lets everything stay cute and harmless, not unlike a kid’s storybook. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find it somewhat delightful at times, and I also wouldn’t exactly use this as a litmus test of someone’s humanity. If you don’t like it, you’re hardly a soulless jerk who probably kicks babies and cats and baby kittens in your spare time; however, if you are enraptured by its charms, you’re probably just as likely to get the same experience from watching a weepy made-for-TV movie.

I suppose I’m somewhere in between; maybe it was just all the holiday good-will, but I wasn’t especially offended by its schmaltziness. Instead, it left me with a smile that had pretty much faded by the time I left the parking lot; the rest of the movie faded along with it, which is something I hate to say about anything, especially when it involves Cameron Crowe.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=20780&reviewer=429
originally posted: 12/27/11 18:10:55
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User Comments

11/05/12 Dr.Lao A good gimmick buried under maudlin wounded man cliches. Watchable, but that's all 3 stars
5/05/12 The Taitor A good to decent family movie but there are a couple of s and a bombs 3 stars
3/12/12 Rachel Macadamia Nuts Miscast and overrated-for-hotness Scarlett Johansson is more a distraction than a boon. 3 stars
1/25/12 Devin Sabas a sweet family movie with a stong cast. when cameron crowe is on he is on 4 stars
1/16/12 Chris. Not bad, lagged toward the end. Designed to try to make you cry. 4 stars
1/12/12 Donald Hallett I liked it a lot a little sappy but good 4 stars
1/04/12 Joanna Cumberbatch Too much sentimentality, too little real animal interest. 3 stars
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  23-Dec-2011 (PG)
  DVD: 03-Apr-2012


  DVD: 03-Apr-2012

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