We Bought a Zoo Takes Place in Cameron Crowe’s Alternate Universe, Which Is Nothing Like Real Life

Reviews of the latest films.
Dec. 22 2011 12:46 PM

Animal Wrongs

Matt Damon frolics with monkeys in Cameron Crowe’s oppressively inspirational We Bought a Zoo.

Still of Matt Damon in 'We Bought a Zoo.'
Matt Damon plays a widowed father in We Bought a Zoo

Photograph by Neal Preston © 2011 20th Century Fox. All rights reserved.

What must it be like to live inside a Cameron Crowe movie? It’s a place where the sun dapples your face as you stare in awe at your beloved family. Your boldest, most go-for-broke gestures are always rewarded, no matter how foolish they may be. Naysayers receive their comeuppance or are transformed into acolytes through the sheer force of your belief. Your 7-year-old is a fount of adorable, homespun wisdom. Your troubled 14-year-old’s affection is hard-won. Scarlett Johansson has a big crush on you. Thanks to a fantastic music-clearance budget, your every move is accompanied by songs from Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Sigur Rós.

That’s the world of Crowe’s new film, We Bought a Zoo (Fox), and it’s a place that will feel familiar to anyone who’s seen Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous, or Elizabethtown. The realities that Crowe creates all seem like pleasant enough places to be, but you’d never mistake them for real life. The fuzzy, squishy world of We Bought a Zoo may be the Cameron Crowe-iest of them all.

Photograph of Cameron Crowe giving direction to Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson while filming 'We Bought a Zoo'
Cameron Crowe talks to Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson while filming We Bought a Zoo

© 2011 20th Century Fox

Loosely based on British writer Benjamin Mee’s memoir of the same name, Crowe’s film transplants the action to Southern California and makes Mee (Matt Damon, sturdy as always but uninspiring) an adventurous journalist who’s just lost his wife. Unmoved by the hot single moms who bake him lasagna or the editor who offers a cushy columnist slot, Mee moves his family into a big rambling beauty of a house which comes attached to a down-on-its-luck zoo, managed by zookeeper Kelly Foster (Johansson). Mee declares the zoo his newest adventure and sets to work rehabilitating the enclosures in time for a crucial safety inspection.

It’s that upcoming inspection, to be conducted by a blowhard USDA agent (John Michael Higgins), which provides We Bought a Zoo with its most groaningly broad comedic beats and its uneasiest moments. Crowe’s always been a crowd-pleasing filmmaker, but I never thought I’d see so many monkey reaction shots in a Cameron Crowe movie. We Bought a Zoo is marked by a desperate eagerness to please—from the jokes about dick-measuring right down to that sequence, seen in every crummy comedy of the past 20 years, in which a bad guy’s boots thud forebodingly to the ground in close-up as he steps out of his car.

And Higgins’ character, so easy to root against, puts the audience in the morally impractical position of fervently hoping that the feds will cut a hapless, good-hearted zoo owner a little slack. After Zanesville, that feels a little bit weird, as does the scene where Buster the 650-pound brown bear wanders a subdivision before being tranqed and repatriated by the frazzled zoo staff.

All these mishaps occur in a Crowe-ian atmosphere of hazy good will, with montages (set to “Cinnamon Girl” and “Buckets of Rain”) of Damon and his dubious children and employees hammering, feeding, digging, painting, and doing cute things with peafowl. By the time you get to the rain montage, set (natch) to “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” you might wonder who the audience is for this thing. We Bought a Zoo is ostensibly for families, although young children might snooze through the slower sequences and older children might find it a little bit square. The zoo’s boozy exhibit designer (Angus Macfadyen) calls Damon’s character a “boomer,” which is obviously not true; Damon was born in 1970. It’s Crowe who’s a boomer, and it’s boomers who might love this movie the most, with its Neil Young tunes and its heart on its sleeve and its genial spirit of well-funded rebellion. (Mee empties his not-insubstantial nest egg into the zoo, and stumbles upon even more money at the eleventh hour.)

Here and there, little touches of authentically complex emotion worm their way into this oppressively inspirational movie. Thomas Haden Church plays Benjamin’s concerned brother with a great deal of charm. Crowe has a nice touch for the moments of awkward honesty between Benjamin and his son (Colin Ford). And Johansson’s no-nonsense zookeeper is the first believable human being she’s played in quite some time—maybe since Ghost World. It’s a testament to her performance that the most authentic character in We Bought a Zoo is the superhot lady who comes along with the dilapidated house that Matt Damon purchases.

Does We Bought a Zoo jerk tears and warm hearts effectively? Sure, dead moms and fuzzy critters will do that, especially when choreographed by a proud manipulator like Crowe. Perhaps it’s churlish to complain about a filmmaker who pours so much—his taste, his tunes, his worldview, his good humor—into each movie. But watching the overlong, overfeeling, overdirected We Bought a Zoo made me glad to return from Cameron Crowe’s world to the real world, where things aren’t quite so simple.

Dan Kois is Slate's culture editor and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.

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