According to Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), the hero of Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo, there are moments in life when all it takes to achieve greatness is “20 seconds of insane courage.” Steel yourself that long, he tells his teenage son, and “I promise you something great will come of it.”
Although the movie is based in fact, the script—written by Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna—has been heavily massaged to fit the boundaries of Crowe’s oeuvre. While Damon’s character is a recently widowed father who abruptly decides to move his two children into a decaying animal sanctuary, the real Benjamin Mee was British, caring for his dying wife rather than mourning her loss, and went in on the purchase with his mother and siblings rather than going it alone. But as a rule, Crowe’s protagonists aren’t team players. Whether by choice or due to the singularity of their vision, they always go it alone. They’re mirrors of their self-determined, self-mythologizing creator, whose tendency to view himself as a visionary romantic has gone from secret weapon to Achilles’ heel.
When Benjamin’s son asks why his father, a newsprint journalist who’s never cared for so much as a houseplant, would uproot his two children and pour his life savings into a hopeless boondoggle, his response is simple, even elemental: “Why not?” There are, of course, any number of eminently sensible objections, but in Crowe’s world, the rewards of thinking big invariably outweigh the risks. From Jerry Maguire to Lloyd Dobler, his protagonists are men (always men) who aren’t afraid to dream. Their impulses may get them in over their heads, but they fight their way to the surface, emboldened and ennobled by the struggle. As long as they follow their hearts, their heads will find a way to catch up. If this is empty, this doesn’t matter.
Crowe’s heroes aren’t afraid to make fools of themselves, nor, to judge by his films, is Crowe himself. From Jerry Maguire’s “You complete me” to Elizabethtown’s over-the-top finale, which involves a flaming papier-mâché dove and Lynyrd Skynrd's "Free Bird," Crowe’s movies are studded with moments that beg for iconic status, whether or not they end up achieving it. He’s made bad movies, but never a bad trailer.
Crowe’s ethos has its roots in Say Anything’s Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack), the embodiment of what Crowe calls in the film’s DVD commentary “optimism as a revolutionary act.” Although he’s too brooding and philosophical to pass as a starry-eyed naif, Lloyd is a dreamer to the core, from his devotion to a career as a professional kickboxer (“the sport of the future”) to his determination to woo the superlatively unavailable braniac-slash-beauty queen Diane Court (Ione Skye). Like any young man, and many older ones, he’s preoccupied with self-image to the detriment of expressing himself, a tough-guy act that almost costs him his beloved Diane. But in the film’s iconic scene, he stands atop his car outside Diane’s bedroom window, a boom box blaring Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” raised above his head.
Taken as a group, Crowe’s movies seem exceedingly, even excruciatingly, conscious of their larger-than-life ambitions. The multiple Oscar nominee Jerry Maguire and Crowe’s barely veiled autobiography Almost Famous neatly synthesized Crowe’s thoughts on the march toward greatness. After those two iconic films, it was as if he’d said what he came to say but couldn’t be persuaded to put down the microphone. Vanilla Sky, which followed close on Almost Famous’ heels, is an almost unwatchable slog, a failed attempt to play away from his strengths. Elizabethtown was meant to return to Crowe’s past glories, but instead it showed him bottoming out, overdosing on quirk until the film feels like the artificial-sweetener equivalent of magic realism.
In an almost prophetic sense, Elizabethtown is about a man failing to live up to the expectations created by his early success—who, in fact, has just lost his employer, a running-shoe manufacturer, nearly a billion dollars. We don’t get much sense of the inspiration behind Orlando Bloom’s Späsmotica shoe beyond a quick shot of him studying the contours of a manta ray and the idea that wearing it “was meant to approximate walking on a cloud.” But it’s clear that eight years of his working life have suddenly and definitively gone down the toilet. As he’s reeling from his professional cataclysm and the sudden death of his father, Bloom’s Elizabethtown character meets up with Kirsten Dunst’s flighty flight attendant, who imparts to him this pearl of wisdom: “You want to be truly great? Then have the courage to fail big and stick around.” That’s the arc of most of Crowe’s films in a nutshell, with the unspoken promise that things will eventually turn out for the best. Critic Nathan Rabin used Dunst’s Elizabethtown as the exemplar of what he dubbed the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, an unflaggingly upbeat sprite who attached herself to the hero like Jiminy Cricket. In a sense, she’s merely a grown-up version of the preternaturally tuned-in children who populate Crowe’s films, from Jerry Maguire’s surrogate son to Benjamin Mee’s bright-eyed daughter. Who but a child or a fictional construction could muster the needed degree of blind faith?
In many ways, We Bought a Zoo feels like a response to the catastrophic reception endured by Elizabethtown, which was withdrawn and recut after an early version was savaged by critics at the Toronto Film Festival. After he buys the zoo, Benjamin is beset by naysayers on all sides. His accountant brother laments the bad investment, the zookeepers are skeptical of his commitment and put off by his complete lack of expertise, and a bean-counting inspector does his best to make sure the shuttered facility never reopens its doors.
By Crowe's swing-for-the-rafters standards, We Bought a Zoo is relatively subdued, but it feels as if Crowe’s just shuffling the cards rather than dealing from a different deck. There ought to be little this widowed single father shares with a high-powered sports agent or a kickboxing high-schooler, but peel back the skin and they’re built on the same frame. Like Crowe himself, they’re all Manic Visionary Dream Boys. For Cameron Crowe and his heroes, there comes a point when “Why not?” is no longer good enough.