With one line in “Jerry Maguire” (1996), Cameron Crowe officially switched gears from being an edgy rock n’ roll filmmaker to becoming the Crown Prince of Schmaltz. (It’s gotten so bad, that sometimes I’m not even sure his “good movies” deserve all their praise.) Nonetheless, “You complete me” now sounds like Yeates compared to some of the self-help advice uttered by the characters in “We Bought a Zoo.” The weird thing is, I don’t think he’s being disingenuous. I have a feeling that this is actually how Cameron Crowe lives his life, finding signs in everything and espousing about the importance of taking insane risks because life is an adventure. He loves love and he wants everyone else to love it too. Crowe’s emotional maturity is Benjamin Button, aging in reverse. Unfortunately, this means that “We Bought a Zoo” is an excruciating film for anyone not wearing rose-colored glasses.
The film is based on the real life experience of British journalist Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), who moves his family from the city to a rural zoo in order to help them move past the untimely death of the family matriarch. The film quickly catches the audience up through heavy exposition. His troubled teenage son, Dylan (Colin Ford, a.k.a. flashback Sam Winchester on “Supernatural”) argues that it doesn’t matter if he’s been neglecting his studies in lieu of his artwork because “they’re not gonna give an F to a kid whose mom died 6 months ago.” His seven-year-old daughter, Rosie (a so-cute-it-hurts, Maggie Elizabeth Jones), occupies the precocious ray-of-sunshine role uttering such contrivances as, “their happy is too loud” of their perpetually partying neighbors. I suppose we’re meant to see it as inspirational when a widower with two children to feed, quits his job on a whim AND refuses a severance package because he’s “sick of sympathy.” An instant later, Dylan is kicked out of school for stealing, thus justifying Benjamin’s plan to “start over.”
What follows is a train wreck full of fluffy bunnies and rainbows. After an exhaustive, one-day search for a new home, Benjamin decides to buy the decrepit countryside zoo, home to 49 species of animals and an entire staff, simply because his daughter looks happy feeding some peacocks and the sunshine hits her just so as the music swells. The sun comes back time and time again to signify revelations and canonize the dead through photos and flashbacks. I hope it received a SAG day rate for its pivotal role in the Mee family’s emotional journey.
Crowe isn’t entirely to blame for this Sapfest. He punched up a script by Aline Brosh McKenna, the woman behind such inoculations of feminism as “27 Dresses” and “I Don’t Know How She Does It.” One shudders to imagine the original draft.
“Caricature” is a generous word to describe the supporting cast, as a caricature usually depicts more than one facet of a personality (skateboards AND hot dogs). The staff at the Rosemoor Zoo isn’t quite so complex. ScarJo is the no-nonsense head zookeeper who, after she warms to Benjamin, does little more than throw him supportive smiles. Patrick Fugit plays a guy who stands around with a monkey on his shoulder. Elle Fanning is the sweet teenage love-interest for Dylan. She tails him like a smiley, mute puppy dog for most of the movie and then gets mad because he doesn’t know how to talk to her. Thomas Hayden Church plays Benjamin’s accountant big brother (We know this because, at one point, he says, “Listen to your big brother, the accountant”). There is also a Scottish animal habitat designer with an adorable case of alcoholism, an uptight zoo accountant, and a petty inspector with a chip on his shoulder for no reason other than to create conflict and prompt a calendar-checking montage.
As for Damon’s performance, I see what he tried to do there. But his attempts at underplaying the melodrama are thwarted by come-to-life visions of his wife in happier times (they’re the sort of family who literally frolicked in a field with…airplane arms) and crying ONE SINGLE TEAR when scrolling through an iPhoto album. I usually enjoy his work, so I’m hoping this is just a fluke for him and that he hasn’t fallen prey to whatever it is that made Tom Hanks become a man who would agree to star opposite a volleyball. To his credit, it’s pretty hard to take the cheddar out of a thinly veiled terminally ill tiger metaphor. Benjamin all but calls the tiger by his wife’s name during this drawn-out parallel. The only one who comes out of that with any dignity in tact is the tiger.
Even in the worst Cameron Crowe films, the soundtrack is usually a bright spot. It appears that he’s lost that edge as well. Instead, he took a play from the McG Manual of Literal Soundtracks. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” underscores Dylan being expelled from school. “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” plays when it rains. When Benjamin is writing checks beyond his means, he does so to Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike.”
I do have to give the script props for not fast-tracking the Damon/ScarJo romance. Six months is not long enough to get over the alleged love of your life, no matter how much effort you’re putting into moving on. But they neutralize this authenticity by including stereotypical father-and-son issues. You know, the ones that could have long been resolved by simply listening to one other and admitting that you actually give a damn (Oh, you men).
Those are just some of the more glaring issues with a film that is essentially a parody of family melodrama. Here are a few more: The titular line is uttered THREE TIMES (twice by little Rosie in exactly the same tone). Dylan mainly draws severed limbs, but he’s also, unintentionally, a skilled graphic design artist. Benjamin has a bad rapport with the animals until he follows the staff’s advice that he should “just be real with them.” I could go on, but I think you get the point.
Cameron Crowe got his start as a rock journalist, but now he’s about as rock n’ roll as “River of Dreams”-era Billy Joel. Yeah, don’t see this movie.