Cameron Crowe is a strange creature. Everybody seems to like him. Everybody has a fondness for him and his work, but when you look back at what movies he has made there is not a lot there to be fond of. I have not seen Say Anything… Singles was a decent comedy with a great soundtrack. Jerry Maguire is very sappy with a good Tom Cruise. I never really understood the hype around Almost Famous. Vanilla Sky was a mess, and Elizabethtown made his downward slope even more steep. Now, six years after that last debacle Crowe releases We Bought a Zoo, a movie that doesn’t make a very good case for Crowe and his career.
Based on real life events, We Bought a Zoo tells the story of Benjamin Mee, a father of two and a widower since six months. He was an adventurer, but he has lost all appetite for a more exciting life. Then he decides to make a change. He starts looking for a new house, but doesn’t seem to able to find something that fits his needs. Then he comes across an old zoo that’s for sale. He takes the plunge and starts to renovate the zoo with the help of his family and the zoo staff. Hilarities ensue while Benjamin also deals with an annoying zoo inspector and a son who has been extremely affected by the loss of his mother.
The fact that this is based on actual events make you think that this could be a gritty tale with some real drama, because in real life things tend to be harder than in the movies. Well, think again, We Bought a Zoo is so sugarcoated that it isn’t funny anymore. This is understandable when you look at who wrote the adaptation with Crowe: Aline Brosh McKenna, who previously gave us gems like I Don’t Know How She Does It and Morning Glory, but of which are terrible movies. She manages to transform this story about a grieving family into a movie that is so full of unfunny jokes and cheap sentiment that is almost a crime. It is beyond me why a person like the real Benjamin Mee would let this happen. He probably signed a deal with Fox that prevented him from intervening. If that was the case, then let that be a lesson to all.
In light of that knowledge it is a miracle that something good came out of We Bought a Zoo at all. It is purely the cast that saves this movie. Matt Damon plays Benjamin Mee in a way that seems to be his new favorite character. Like in Contagion, he is the slightly overweight father who tries to do the best he can, but who just can’t seem to catch a break. He is given a lot of food by (presumably divorced) women who see something in him, but he doesn’t feel the need to reciprocate the gesture. He is still very much working on processing the loss of the love of his life. Damon is totally relatable as Benjamin Mee, as most men are just like him. I know I am.
This processing of grief is something that has his son in its grasp as well. Dylan Mee (played by Colin Ford) acts out at school and that drives his father crazy. The confrontation between father and son later in the movie is something of a marvel in this otherwise rose-colored flick. The sheer power that Ford and Damon display in this scene is palpable through the screen.
The third member of this family is daughter Rosie Mee, a very wise for her age kid who acts like her father’s conscience. This character is maybe what bothered me the most about We Bought a Zoo. She is written in a way that makes her serve purely as comic relief in a way that would befit a role in a third rate sitcom. She constantly interrupts with incredibly smart remarks that are supposed to break a tension that is not even there. There is no way that this kid was like this in real life and that is again where the moniker “Based on real life events” works against the movie. It makes it hard to relate to We Bought a Zoo, a story that is already hard to believe, because it is so outrageous.
The supporting cast does an adequate job. There is Scarlett Johansson in a role that didn’t require her to doll up and flaunt her good looks. She downplays much of what people want to see of her and it even sounded like she lowered her voice slightly to make her a little bit more masculine. A very wise choice. As Damon’s brother there is the always competent Thomas Haden Church. He provides some much needed honest comic relief. Church and Johansson (together with Damon and Ford) manage to lift this otherwise forgettable romp to a level that made it watchable.
There is always one thing you can count on when watching a Cameron Crow movie: the music. Crowe is a former Rolling Stone journalist and decided from day one in his movie career to champion the music he likes in his movies. We Bought a Zoo is no exception. It is filled to the brim with songs that could make up a soundtrack with ease. On the other hand you have an original soundtrack by Jon Thor Birgisson, AKA Jónsi, that perfectly fits the movie. It is a very cutesy piece of music that hammers the fact home that this is a cute movie and shouldn’t be perceived otherwise. Maybe it would be wise for Crowe to return to his musical career, because, frankly, I likes his documentary on Pearl Jam (Pearl Jam Twenty) very much.