If you had hoped writer-director Cameron Crowe would return from his six-year hiatus having shed the demons of Elizabethtown, well, I’ve got some bad news for you: We Bought a Zoo is just as cutesy as his previous flick, if not even cutesier. It seems you just can’t reason with an unflinching optimist.
But where Elizabethtown was comprised almost entirely of inexplicable, reality-detached sequences and frustratingly precious quotes (“This loss will be met by a hurricane of love”), We Bought a Zoo features the occasional touching moment that feels at least somewhat based on human experiences. Yes, it’s his most blatant ‘family film’, but it’s also his first ‘grown-up’ feature in some time. It deals with grief and parenthood in a manner that feels authentic, and with actual consequences, and not merely about a character trying to please a manic-pixie-dream-girl. Whether or not Crowe has actually learned some lessons from his past mistakes is hard to say. There’s a good chance I’ve just been worn down by his constant urging to let some light and love into our lives.
Matt Damon stars as Benjamin Mee, a thrill-seeking journalist who has recently lost his wife to cancer. Struggling to raise his teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford) and precocious young daughter Rossie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), he quits his job, packs up the family home, and whisks them out of LA and away from all the memories of their mother that litter town. In an attempt to hit the reset button in as extreme a manner as possible, Benjamin purchases a dilapidated zoo with the intention of restoring the place to its former glory. The caretaker staff, primarily zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), is dubious of his intentions at first. The struggles are indeed great, but after the grieving the Mee family has endured, facing off against a man-eating lion or a box of snakes just isn’t that intimidating (doesn’t that just sound like the ultimate Crowe-ism?).
Although it’s based on the real-life Benjamin Mee’s memoir of the same name, We Bought a Zoo couldn’t suit the oftentimes-autobiographical Crowe more. The screenplay – for which he shares a credit with Aline Brosh McKenna – has its fair number of cringe-worthy, over-written lines. But they’re sold with conviction by Damon, as well as incomparable supporting performers Thomas Haden Church (as Benjamin’s brother) and Elle Fanning (Kelly’s younger sister, nursing a serious crush on Dylan). And despite Jonsi’s aggressively wide-eyed, sun-drenched score, there are plenty of classic Crowe cuts across the soundtrack to warm the cockles. So they should. The days of brutal teen awkwardness and face disfigurement are well and truly behind him. Cameron Crowe is now exclusively in the cockle-warming business, and it’s up to you if you’re willing to go along for the ride.
We Bought a Zoo arrives in Australian cinemas December 25, 2011.