'Zoo' Gets Crowe Out of Movie Jail
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
More than half a decade after landing in what some industry observers call "movie jail" with his overreaching romantic dramedy "Elizabethtown," writer-director Cameron Crowe applies for parole with an accessible wannabe family crowd-pleaser, "We Bought a Zoo." Based on the nonfiction book by Benjamin Mee, the movie tips Crowe's eagerness to behave himself, Hollywood-style, right off the bat with its introduction of the Mee character, played by Matt Damon.
"My dad is a writer!" a too-enthusiastic voice-over from a male kid announces, and goes on to announce that said dad has all sorts of adventures that he then writes about, but then ... yeah, the bad thing happens, and dad is revealed to be the ne plus ultra of Hollywood males, a widower. A really popular-with-the-ladies widower, a cringeworthy scene of a perky mom foisting a plate of lasagna on the poor guy reveals. The inevitable punch line of a fridge filled with uneaten plates of lasagna comes soon after, and this critic was, frankly, moaning.
I've been a Crowe fan, with and without reservations, for years. No Hollywood moviemaker, I think, has had his heart in a more consistently right place than this guy. The biggest problem with "Elizabethtown" is that heart wanted to be everywhere at once. Crowe wanted to show us too much of what made life both painful and glorious. So to see him falling back on such lazy and conventional tropes with such ease is particularly painful, as in, "How much are you going to make me suffer so you can get out of movie jail," you know?
However, things pick up soon. As it happens, this film's Mee is a pretty lost soul six months after the death of his wife. He's at serious odds with his teen son Dylan (Colin Ford), whose natural morbid-boy phase has been exacerbated by his mom's death, and rather than face the problem, he instead dotes all but irresponsibly on his younger daughter, the preternaturally adorable Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). It's at Rosie's behest that he impulsively purchases the wildlife preserve of the film's title, despite having zero experience at zoo keeping (although the family does in fact have a preternaturally adorable beagle).
The details of how such a thing is in fact even possible for an average citizen to do are laid out satisfyingly enough as Mee faces up to his new responsibilities, the park's overtaxed, extremely skeptical staff, headed up by an eccentric designer/groundsman (Angus Macfadyen) and a harried-but-beautiful-and-devoted keeper, Kelly (Scarlett Johansson). And to keep Dylan interested, or not, there's a sweet teenage assistant played by Elle Fanning. It seems as if all the healing relationships necessary have been lined up according to Hollywood logic, and it wouldn't be a spoiler to say, well, yes, indeed they have, but where "We Bought a Zoo" earns its stripes is in the process of getting all of its characters to relate to and accept each other.
Crowe takes a lot of heat for his portrayal of adorable kids, and already there's been a lot of online grousing about the Rosie character being a female variant on the aggressively lovable Jonathan Lipnicki in Crowe's "Jerry Maguire." What Crowe doesn't get enough credit for is his continuing insight into and empathy with teen characters, and one of the really engaging things about "Zoo" is how conscious it is in showing the thread between characters who shared an adolescence together (Damon's foil, a frequently sympathetic one, is an older brother played by Thomas Haden Church) and how that contributes to the hard-earned wisdom of characters trying to bridge generational misunderstanding. Which is to say that the scenes between Damon and Ford are among the best-written (Crowe collaborated on the screenplay with Aline Brosh McKenna) and best-played scenes in the film. And the relationship between Johansson and Damon is handled with a similar sensitivity, and Johansson herself is lighter, more engaging, and more likable than I've seen her in quite some time.
And then there's the animal stuff, which is by turns amusing, alarming and almost always the stuff of parable, but isn't terribly oversold. PETA members have already objected, and various other would-be ethicists will have their perhaps sensible but almost always sure to be pompous say, but we humans are, in fact, as a species, quite a long way from being immune to the charms of creature antics on celluloid or digital. So I say: Kittie!
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.