We Bought a Zoo is the most formulaic movie Cameron Crowe has ever made: It is so generic, you could review it with a flow chart. This is Crowe's first feature since 2005’s unfairly reviled Elizabethtown and also the first time he has shared the screenwriting credit on one of his films (The Devil Wears Prada’s Aline Brosh McKenna co-wrote the script, based on Benjamin Mee’s memoir). After the stinging criticism of his last picture, Crowe opted to play things safe. The new movie is way too eager to please, with constant cutaways to adorable children and cute animals, and not one but two scenes where all the characters on the screen stand up and cheer, courting the audience to do the same.
And yet despite all the sugary sentiment, We Bought a Zoo movie still gets to you: The picture annoys you, but it also wrings happy tears, because Crowe pulls at your heartstrings in crafty ways. Every time you start gagging on all the schmaltz, there is a scene such as the one in which Matt Damon forbids his son from ever using “Whatever!” as a response because the word is meaningless and annoying and disrespectful, and suddenly you really do want to stand up and cheer.
Most of We Bought a Zoo is like that: Practically every cornball moment in the movie (and they are legion) is followed by a wonderful little beat or a funny line or a burst of unexpected pathos. Elizabethtown was blasted for being schizophrenic and trying to cram too many disparate elements into two hours. But every moment in that film, uneven as it was, felt earnest and true. We Bought a Zoo isn’t nearly as personal: The uplift is often plastic and storebought, the sentiment artificial.
Damon plays Benjamin Mee, a daredevil reporter who quits his job after the death of his wife to concentrate on his children, the teenaged Dylan (Colin Ford) and the 7-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). Desperate to distract his kids from their grief, Benjamin buys a new home in the sticks that happens to come with a dilapidated zoo filled with sick and endangered animals. Little Rosie takes to the idea immediately (“We bought a zoo!” she squeals in delight.) Dylan, who has been misbehaving in school and acting out and sketching troubling images in his journal, isn’t quite as pleased.
Crowe tries hard to sell the premise, but even though We Bought a Zoo is based on a nonfiction book, it comes off as believable as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. You don’t buy it for a second. Every scene featuring Thomas Haden Church as Benjamin’s older brother, who strongly disapproves of all this zoo business, might have well been preceded by a title card that read “And Now For Some Comic Relief!” Even Crowe’s uncanny knack for choosing just the right song to reflect the emotions of his characters is off (the Tom Petty track is especially misplaced). After Scarlett Johansson shows up as the world’s sexiest zookeeper — who just happens to be single, with no prospects! — you’re tempted to give up on the movie altogether.
Don’t. We Bought a Zoo may be little more than a bridge for Crowe to wade back into the filmmaking pool after a six-year absence. But Crowe is playing to the back row on his terms. Nestled among all the beatific smiles and group hugs are sharp, poignant moments such as the emotional blow-out between the exasperated Benjamin and his son - a screaming match between two people who love each other but don’t know how to express it. A major subplot involving an aging tiger who may have to be put down is surprisingly restrained: Crowe eschews the Marley & Me route for something far more subtle (you’ll still cry, but only on the inside).
A confrontation between Damon and a depressed 650-pound grizzly bear on Paxil is a wonderful moment of genuine awe. Almost all of Crowe’s movies include a mantra that you end up quoting later (e.g. “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.”) The one in We Bought a Zoo initially sounds like it was writing by the inspirational-card department of Hallmark: “Sometimes all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage.” By the end of the film, though, you’re nodding and marveling at how truthful the phrase is.
Even the final scene is somewhat tacked-on and not entirely necessary — this movie has more false endings than The Return of the King — but it is also one of the most affecting moments in any of Crowe’s films. In the hands of almost any another director, We Bought a Zoo might have been insufferable. But Crowe makes selling out seem like a noble endeavor. This is a flawed, hackneyed, often irritating picture. So why do I feel like I can’t wait to watch it again?
Cast: Matt Damon, Scarlet Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Patrick Fugit.
Director: Cameron Crowe.
Screenwriters: Aline Brosh McKenna, Cameron Crowe. Based on the book by Benjamin Mee.
Producer: Julie Yorn.
A 20th Century Fox release. Running time: 124 minutes. Adult themes. Playing at: area theaters.