Director Cameron Crowe hasn’t directed a non-documentary feature since his 2005 flop Elizabethtown. His new film, We Bought a Zoo, shows not much has changed in the interim. Crowe is still painfully earnest with his adult characters who give big speeches and wear their hearts on their sleeves. There comes a point where earnestness can become overbearing, and the movie becomes nothing but soul-bearing conversations with only another terrific Matt Damon performance to reign it in. Crowe still hasn’t learned how to say more with less, which is a shame since most of the movie is so amiable that he doesn’t have to say much at all.
Benjamin Mee (Damon) was a thrill-seeking journalist but his energy was sapped after the death of his wife. Everything he sees reminds him of her, and as he tells his brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), “I’m sick of sympathy.” His frustration deepens as he struggles to be a good single parent, especially with his aloof teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford). Mee goes looking for a new home and he finds what appears to be a perfect farmhouse, but there’s a catch: the owner also takes over a dilapidated zoo. Mee sees a new adventure and a fresh start for the family (plus he can’t say no to his adorable moppet daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones)) and buys the property. He then goes about trying to restore the zoo with the help of the colorful remaining staff, which includes hot zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), her niece Lily (Elle Fanning—who’s smitten with Dylan)—, the boisterous-but-lovable Peter (Angus Macfadyen) and the forgettable Robin (Patrick Fugit) who’s only defining attribute is that he carries around a monkey on his shoulder. However, Mee’s attempt to reopen the zoo puts him deeply in debt, and more importantly, doesn’t get him away from his grief.
Up until it hits the overwrought third-act, We Bought a Zoo is a serviceable enough family film. Kids love animals, the animals have personalities, and the audience has fun watching Mee struggle to understand the nuts-and-bolts of running a zoo. The movie is even good-natured enough that when Crowe becomes predictable and cues up a Bob Dylan or Cat Stevens tune on the jukebox (yes, the workers have a jukebox in their break room just so Crowe can work classic folk-rock into the movie), the selection doesn’t elicit a groan as much as a resigned, “Oh, Cameron.” Kicking the story back to the morose Dylan and his grotesque drawings (he’s deep and tortured, you see) is made workable by Fanning’s warmth and personality. The only stumbling block is having the villain be a government inspector (John Michael Higgins) whose high standards—standards that are meant to guarantee the safety and security of the animals—threaten to stop the zoo from opening.
But as always, every movie is made better by Matt Damon. He can ground the maudlin moments with honesty, and lighten the mood with humor. His range is tremendous and though his performance you believe in Mee’s struggle to reconnect with his kids, deal with his grief, and his desire to make the zoo work. All of this would have been done in a Cameron Crowe movie, but Damon makes these overcooked elements work as well as he can.
And yet he can’t ground the third act of the movie because Crowe is unwilling to trust the talent of his lead actor, and unwilling to space out the cathartic moments. We know Mee is grieving, but Crowe has to pummel it into our brains. Characters must say everything they feel because the writer-director thinks we’re too dull to understand what people feel unless they say it out loud. The third act, which is so labored and lachrymose that you have to remind yourself that you’re watching a family film featuring zoo animals, comes to the point where you expect Mee to look straight into the eyes of a dying tiger and say with a straight face, “You are a metaphor for my grief.”
If you’re familiar with Crowe’s previous body of work, there’s almost a sad inevitability with We Bought a Zoo. We know Crowe can’t help himself, but there’s always hope that he can somehow craft his earnestness into something sweet. He’s able to contain himself for most of We Bought a Zoo but eventually crosses a line where the movie becomes a parody of his previous work and the audience is left wondering when we’ll leave the crying characters and go back to the adorable animals.