Matt Damon stands head and shoulders above ‘We Bought a Zoo,’ giving a wonderfully-layered performance in a movie that insists on spelling everything out. It’s a bracing reminder that as a filmmaker, Cameron Crowe is a heckuva magazine writer.
Nonetheless, with its warm-hearted gaze into the complexities involved in achieving domestic bliss, ‘We Bought a Zoo’ is fine family fare for the holiday season, tapping directly (and often) into the wellspring of emotion that gushes forth after the death of a loved one. Six months after his wife died, Benjamin Mee (Damon) is plagued by memories of her everywhere he turns, and is beginning to resent all the sympathy extended to him by friends, workmates, and neighbors. His 14-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford) is moody and withdrawn; he draws morbid pictures of death and decapitation, and, as a result of his anti-social behavior, has been expelled from school. On the other hand, 7-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), a bright and bubbly girl, seems to be doing OK.
Still and all, Benjamin decides the family needs a new start. He quits his full-time job as a newspaper journalist and resolves to move the family to a new neighborhood. An exhaustive search for a new home proves fruitless until he stumbles upon a large property with a (comparatively) low asking price. The property is beautifully situated, with gorgeous landscaping, though the ramshackle house is badly in need of repairs. Oh, and then there’s the zoo in the back yard.
Yes, a zoo.
The prospect of owning a zoo would appear to be a deal breaker for Benjamin, but, as he prepares to leave the property, he loses track of Rosie. Following her voice, he walks up a small hill and at the top he sees Rosie below, happily playing with peacocks. He hunkers down, smiling at his bundle of walking joy, as the sun begins to set beautifully behind him, and inspirational music swells, and his smile grows … and the tension grows unbearable: What, oh what, will he do?!
There, then, is the final dividing point of ‘We Bought a Zoo.’ The remainder of the film plays out in predictable fashion, with occasional pauses to make sure everyone knows a certain moment is indeed, “Important and Significant” in the life of the characters involved. The dialogue is always to the point and over-explanatory, leaving no thought unspoken out loud. And, though the film places an emphasis on emotional honesty, it is an adulteration of the true story that served as inspiration, reflecting Crowe’s own interests and concerns.
(‘We Bought a Zoo’ is the title of a memoir by Benjamin Mee; his wife tragically died within days after they moved to the private zoo they had purchased after months of negotiations, in part to help Benjamin’s mother deal with the loss of her husband; Benjamin has two young children, both pre-teens; Benjamin’s mother lives with the family; Benjamin’s brother has been entirely supportive of the project.)
On the flip side, ‘We Bought a Zoo’ is relentlessly positive, seeking to portray a family dealing with huge, life-changing challenges, and is likely to pull the heart strings of parents of any age. If you can ignore the constant nudge-nudging in the dialogue, Damon’s performance is a subtle wonder to behold, accompanied by solid supporting work by Scarlett Johansson as the head zookeeper, Thomas Haden Church as Benjamin’s cynical brother, Angus Macfadyen as a feisty zookeeper, Elle Fanning as a very forward love interest for Dylan, and Patrick Fugit (‘Almost Famous’) as a zookeeper with a monkey on his shoulder.
Like a proud papa, Crowe relies too much on reaction shots from little Maggie Elizabeth Jones to enliven routine scenes with an overdose of cute. The same could be said for the movie as a whole: the intentions are good; there are just too many of them.
‘We Bought a Zoo’ opens wide across the Metroplex tomorrow.