As a long time fan of Cameron Crowe I have often found myself defending him. People say that his films are mawkish and sickly sweet, that they are squishy bits of nothing filled with pleasant smelling bullshit. I always countered that Crowe was a realistic optimist, a filmmaker who sees the world as it is - sometimes tough, unkind and cruel - but whose eternal hope (and love for his characters) makes him unable to stay cynical about it all.
With We Bought A Zoo Crowe has finally made the movie that proves his detractors right. Shallow, empty and running on exhausted cliches, We Bought A Zoo is targeted at people who cry during TV commercials, who get misty eyed in the greeting card aisle. It’s a movie that has only one emotionally true and honest moment, a moment it wisely saves for the last minute. Every other scene of We Bought A Zoo is fake, manipulative snot.
The film is ostensibly based on the true story of Benjamin Mee, a writer who ended up buying a defunct zoo. But the script, by Aline Brosh McKenna (27 Dresses and Morning Glory) and Crowe, brutalizes the truth. In real life Mee bought the zoo (which was in England, not California, but whatever - in the grand scheme of things this is a small change) while his wife was experiencing remission of her brain tumor. He, his wife, their kids and their extended family worked together to fix up and maintain the zoo, but then his wife’s brain tumor came back and she passed away.
The film opens with her dead. It’s too much of a bummer to make a movie about someone slowly dying while rebuilding a zoo, although I think the old Cameron Crowe - the one I defended vigorously - would have been able to make an ultimately uplifting movie about that. But this Crowe made We Bought A Zoo as a half-assed healing story, one that opens with the wife dead for six months and Mee impulsively buying a zoo in a last ditch effort to get away from her ghost and start fresh.
Matt Damon plays Mee, and between this and Contagion he proves himself the single dad of the year. Crowe may have forgotten where the line between touching and maudlin is, but he hasn’t forgotten how to work with actors, and Damon’s performance is measured and touching. He’s a great dad, and he’s a good man. Maybe a little too good; Mee is something of a saint whose biggest flaw is that he just doesn’t know how to connect with his son, who is at a difficult age even if he hadn’t just experienced his mother’s death. If it weren’t for Damon’s inherent charm and watchability Mee might come across as totally beige.
Still, Damon’s hugely watchable. He’s handsome and affable and the force of his personality brings you through the whole movie - these are the gifts of a movie star. Crowe was working with good material when it came to Damon. What’s more impressive is how the director got a strong performance out of Scarlett Johansson. While I like the actress, too often she is catclysmically flat in her roles. She gives Crowe her fullest, most rounded performance since Match Point. If the character were better written this would be an out of the park performance. Sadly her role is largely being sassily flirty with Damon; she’s a zookeeper, but there’s not a moment in the movie that convinces me that she gives a shit about animals.
Her character is the leader of the band of misfits who run the zoo, and who Mee inherits along with the property. In a better Cameron Crowe movie these characters would be the fun, colorful ensemble who brings life to the proceedings. In the past he has shown a great hand at giving depth to very minor characters, but in We Bought A Zoo almost everyone feels like glorified extras. Patrick Fugit has about three lines, and the extent of his characterization is that he has a monkey. Carla Gallo is reduced to playing a bitch, while Angus MacFadyen’s character of Scottish Stereotype gets a couple of laughs with his drinking and kilts and temper.
Then there’s Elle Fanning. She was so good in Super 8 this summer; while I wasn’t a fan of the movie I found her performance to be notable. At the time I said ‘Fanning, for the record, is a monster, just a completely next level kind of young actress, outshining even all the adults in the movie.’ So what the hell happened between that movie and this one? She’s playing a country girl who lives on the zoo who, like the other zoofolk, gets one characteristic; in her case she has a crush on Mee’s son, Dylan. But that’s all she has, and she has nothing to do in the film except broadly moon over the boy. Considering how good Crowe is with actors the fact that he couldn’t get something better out of this incredibly promising young actress is shocking (or it’s possible her best stuff is on the cutting room floor. The film feels brutally shortened at times).
Perhaps no character better personifies the movie’s problems than Rosie, played by the adorable Maggie Elizabeth Jones. She’s funny and sweet and doesn’t have that kid actor thing where she comes across as uncomfortably precocious. But Crowe keeps leaning on her, bringing her in again and again for reaction shots and cheap jokes. It’s a good performance pummeled beneath the weight of heavy-handed tactics.
In real life Mee’s zoo is a sanctuary that breeds endangered animals. In the movie it’s an admission-collecting park, and the script creates a phony ticking clock narrative by making Mee and the team have to get the place up to snuff for an inspection. When the inspector, played by the often funny (but not in this movie) John Michael Higgins, shows up I thought we were going to get a snobs vs slobs thing happening. The inspector would be a thorn in their side, but the gang’s pluck and unusual solutions to problems would win the day. Except no, and the inspector sort of floats in and out of the movie. He isn’t even that big of a dick, which makes his scenes all the more weightless.
Truth was always Cameron Crowe’s greatest weapon; he understood that sometimes we liked to emphasize the sweet part of bittersweet, but that the bitter always made it sweeter. He found honest, real things to say about people. He has none of that here. The conflict between Mee and his son is facile, thinly written junk that would be unbearable on a CBS family drama. It’s not until the very end that anything resembling the Crowe I loved surfaces; everything else feels engineered and dishonest. Maybe Crowe has finally become a cynic, one who thinks that he can shovel this high fructose corn syrup down his audience’s throats and they’ll love the taste of chemical sweetener.
Sadly, he’s probably right.