Monday, December 26, 2011

almost good — we bought a zoo

I really wanted to like We Bought A Zoo. It had a chance to be something at least fun for kids or quirky/interesting for adults, but director Cameron Crowe takes it so far away from its heart, about a grieving man trying to give his kids a better life, and instead opts to tell a trite and unbelievable love story, as well as trying to preach another one of his catch-phrasy messages at the audience, "All you need is 20 seconds of insane courage," which is supposed to pass for wisdom. People don't talk like that. I'm looking at you, Jerry Maguire.

Damon has more chemistry with a tiger than he does with Johansson
Crowe blows it, not only by pushing an unwanted romance, but also by undermining the built-in animal friendliness that was inherent in the real story of Benjamin Mee and his purchase and refurbishment of a dilapidated family-owned zoo. Crowe has his characters opine, "I like the animals, but I love the humans." Did he really make a movie called We Bought A Zoo and decide that he should push a point about humans being more important than animals? Sounds like hunters, not zoologists, would be the audience for that message. As Crowe told New York Magazine, "It’s got animals attached, and the animals end up being a metaphor for getting over grief."

Even if Crowe did shoot his own film in the foot, there are some bright spots. Matt Damon is completely convincing as a man who just can't get past losing the love of his life to a wasting illness. He has a nice rapport with both kids, the adorable girl that plays his 7 year-old daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and boy who plays his troubled teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford) with whom he spends most of the movie trying to find a common ground. They are both grief-stricken, and are believably awkward and tough with each other. He also connects with the animals, especially an elder dying tiger named Spar.

We Bought a Zoo also has some predictable, but still delightfully wacky characters in its motley crew of zoo staff, with Angus MacFadyen (Braveheart, Californication) and Elle Fanning (Super 8, The Nutcracker) as standouts. Thomas Haden Church (Easy A, All About Steve) is always welcome when he is on screen as Damon's cynical brother with a heart of gold. As is hard-assed zoo inspector John Michael Higgins. The movie could have been so much better if it had canned the romance and concentrated on the people and the animals. Why do movies always have to shove a love story down our throats? It's hardly an original plot twist, and in this film is out of place and hard to stomach. Did Crowe really want us to root for the guy who is tortured by losing the love of his life for 120 of its 124 minutes and then have him get over it find "love" with someone 14 years his junior in its last four?
They even look uncomfortable standing near one another
Which brings us to Scarlett Johansson. Damon and Johansson, who plays zookeeper Kelly, have zero chemistry. Johanssen, as usual,  is a bit of a negative presence on screen. She purses her lips in a half-smile in just about every scene, which is a step up, I guess, from her usual blank demeanor, but she doesn't convey much emotion besides the ability to smirk. The one exception is a scene she plays with just the kids. She orders them a pizza and talks with Dylan, and seems, for a few moments, really involved. But as a head zookeeper and a possible replacement love interest for Damon's grieving widower she is woefully miscast. It also doesn't help that the few scenes depicting Katherine, the deceased wife (Stephanie Szostak, Dinner for Schmucks), Katherine's character is so much more compelling than Kelly's.

We Bought a Zoo never really touches on why or how the little zoo existed in the first place. There was an interesting story here, with some potentially intriguing, offbeat people, but unfortunately, that's not the story that Crowe chose to tell.

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