“We Bought a Zoo,” reviewed


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What happened to Cameron Crowe? This is the guy that made two of the greatest movies of my lifetime — “Almost Famous” and “Say Anything…” — and wrote maybe the greatest high school movie of anyone’s lifetime, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Now he returns to fiction filmmaking six years after the underwhelming “Elizabethtown” with another disappointment. “We Bought a Zoo” features all of the worst parts of Crowe’s work — overwritten dialogue, mopey characters, empty sentimentality — and very few of the best.

Crowe seems to have lost his way in his work, a trait he shares with the protagonist of “We Bought a Zoo,” Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon). They’re both struggling storytellers, too: Benjamin works as a reporter, but ever since the recent death of his wife he hasn’t felt the same passion for of journalism. All he wants to do now is spend time with his kids, teenage Dylan (Colin Ford) and prepubescent Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). Feeling bad about keeping a job from someone who deserves it more, he quits to follow his bliss. So a newly single father with two kids and no other prospects in the midst of a horrific economic recession quits the last secure newspaper job in America because of personal guilt? Hooooookay. I saw this movie at a press screening; during this scene, I swear you could hear several dozen film critics simultaneously angling for Benjamin’s job.

Looking for a fresh start, Benjamin goes househunting. Unfortunately, the only place he likes also happens to be part of Rosemoor Animal Park, a working but dilapidated zoo. Possibly because he believes it will bring his broken family closer, and possibly because the name of this movie is “We Bought a Zoo,” Benjamin impulsively takes over the Rosemoor. Now he needs to get the place cleaned up, repaired, and up to code before the start of the summer season with the help of Rosemoor’s skeletal staff, which includes zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), her niece Lily (Elle Fanning), and Robin (“Almost Famous”‘ Patrick Fugit), whose only apparent responsibilities consist of standing around with his hands on his hips and a monkey on a shoulder. (Seriously. It’s all he does.)

Rosemoor is supposed to be a dump, but Crowe inexplicably chose to film every single scene at the zoo at magic hour, bathing the whole compound in rays of sparkling sunshine. Everyone keeps asking Benjamin why he bought the place, but it’s pretty obvious to me: Rosemoor is absolutely gorgeous. Okay, so it’s nine miles to nearest Target, as the Mees frequently joke. But it’s also located in an edenic valley surrounded by lush, unspoiled mountains. Everywhere you look, you see perfection. And forget rain; it’s never even cloudy at Rosemoor, at least not until the third act needs some drama to spice things up.

The overly warm cinematography might be related to something Benjamin’s brother Duncan’s (Thomas Haden Church) tells him early in the movie. “You need to let a little sunlight in,” he warns his depressed sibling. Thanks to Crowe’s super-saturated photography, there’s plenty of light to be found; Benjamin just needs to notice it’s there. He and his staff face a couple of minor crises, including a grouchy wildlife inspector played by the inappropriately hammy John Michael Higgins, but Benjamin’s only real problem is one of perception. If he could just change his perspective, and maybe listen to some classic Tom Petty tunes while he did it, things would be okay.

Too bad Crowe’s optimistic message isn’t a particularly dramatic one. And too bad the film’s comedy, most of it involving wacky animals or cute little Rosie and her wise-beyond-her-years witticisms, isn’t particularly funny either. The only way to describe most of the roles in this film is thankless. Higgins has the thankless role of the wacky comic relief villain. Fanning has the thankless role of the manic pixie dream girl who inspires Dylan (ironic, since Crowe’s “Elizabethtown” inspired A.V. Club critic Nathan Rabin to invent the term manic pixie dream girl in the first place). Johansson has the thankless role of the person who explains to Benjamin and the audience how to run a zoo. Even Damon, an actor at his best in more acidic material, feels miscast as a guy who’s just a couple of few church visits shy from sainthood. It says a lot about “We Bought a Zoo” that its best moment is one in which Damon pours out his heart to a dying tiger.

Thought most of “We Bought a Zoo” is pretty maudlin, Crowe and Damon manage to wring a few genuine emotions out of the film’s big “Field of Dreams”ish climax. Some of Damon’s big speeches are well-written and well-delivered, and he and Johansson have just enough chemistry together to suggest they’d be great together in a better movie. But it’s still way too little, way too late. We always talk about Cameron Crowe movies in terms of musical moments, of boom boxes hoisted to the sounds of Peter Gabriel and young women deflowered to the sounds of Jackson Browne. So let’s talk about “We Bought a Zoo” in musical terms. If this movie was a pop song, it would be the most clichéd, sentimental love ballad you’d ever heard in your life. You might catch yourself humming along to the soaring sing-along outro, but you wouldn’t feel good about it. A few pretty harmonies don’t make up for a lot of sour notes. But hey, you know how these rock and roll stories always go: the early highs, the crashing lows, then the sudden third act comeback. I’m still looking forward to Crowe’s.

“We Bought a Zoo” opens this Friday. If you see it, tell us what you think in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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Bro and Tell

BFFs And Night Court For Sports

Bromance and Comeuppance On Two New Comedy Crib Series

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“Silicon Valley meets Girls meets black male educators with lots of unrealized potential.”

That’s how Carl Foreman Jr. and Anthony Gaskins categorize their new series Frank and Lamar which joins Joe Schiappa’s Sport Court in the latest wave of new series available now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. To better acquaint you with the newbies, we went right to the creators for their candid POVs. And they did not disappoint. Here are snippets of their interviews:

Frank and Lamar


IFC: How would you describe Frank and Lamar to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Carl: Best bros from college live and work together teaching at a fancy Manhattan private school, valiantly trying to transition into a more mature phase of personal and professional life while clinging to their boyish ways.

IFC: And to a friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Carl: The same way, slightly less coherent.

Anthony: I’d probably speak about it with much louder volume, due to the bar which would probably be playing the new Kendrick Lamar album. I might also include additional jokes about Carl, or unrelated political tangents.

Carl: He really delights in randomly slandering me for no reason. I get him back though. Our rapport on the page, screen, and in real life, comes out of a lot of that back and forth.

IFC: In what way is Frank and Lamar a poignant series for this moment in time?
Carl: It tells a story I feel most people aren’t familiar with, having young black males teach in a very affluent white world, while never making it expressly about that either. Then in tackling their personal lives, we see these three-dimensional guys navigate a pivotal moment in time from a perspective I feel mainstream audiences tend not to see portrayed.

Anthony: I feel like Frank and Lamar continues to push the envelope within the genre by presenting interesting and non stereotypical content about people of color. The fact that this show brought together so many talented creative people, from the cast and crew to the producers, who believe in the project, makes the work that much more intentional and truthful. I also think it’s pretty incredible that we got to employ many of our friends!

Sport Court

Sport Court gavel

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Joe: SPORT COURT follows Judge David Linda, a circuit court judge assigned to handle an ad hoc courtroom put together to prosecute rowdy fan behavior in the basement of the Hartford Ultradome. Think an updated Night Court.

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Joe: Remember when you put those firecrackers down that guy’s pants at the baseball game? It’s about a judge who works in a court in the stadium that puts you in jail right then and there. I know, you actually did spend the night in jail, but imagine you went to court right that second and didn’t have to get your brother to take off work from GameStop to take you to your hearing.

IFC: Is there a method to your madness when coming up with sports fan faux pas?
Joe: I just think of the worst things that would ruin a sporting event for everyone. Peeing in the slushy machine in open view of a crowd seemed like a good one.

IFC: Honestly now, how many of the fan transgressions are things you’ve done or thought about doing?
Joe: I’ve thought about ripping out a whole row of chairs at a theater or stadium, so I would have my own private space. I like to think of that really whenever I have to sit crammed next to lots of people. Imagine the leg room!

Check out the full seasons of Frank and Lamar and Sport Court now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Millennial Wisdom

Charles Speaks For Us All

Get to know Charles, the social media whiz of Brockmire.

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He may be an unlikely radio producer Brockmire, but Charles is #1 when it comes to delivering quips that tie a nice little bow on the absurdity of any given situation.

Charles also perfectly captures the jaded outlook of Millennials. Or at least Millennials as mythologized by marketers and news idiots. You know who you are.

Played superbly by Tyrel Jackson Williams, Charles’s quippy nuggets target just about any subject matter, from entry-level jobs in social media (“I plan on getting some experience here, then moving to New York to finally start my life.”) to the ramifications of fictional celebrity hookups (“Drake and Taylor Swift are dating! Albums y’all!”). But where he really nails the whole Millennial POV thing is when he comments on America’s second favorite past-time after type II diabetes: baseball.

Here are a few pearls.

On Baseball’s Lasting Cultural Relevance

“Baseball’s one of those old-timey things you don’t need anymore. Like cursive. Or email.”

On The Dramatic Value Of Double-Headers

“The only thing dumber than playing two boring-ass baseball games in one day is putting a two-hour delay between the boring-ass games.”

On Sartorial Tradition

“Is dressing badly just a thing for baseball, because that would explain his jacket.”

On Baseball, In A Nutshell

“Baseball is a f-cked up sport, and I want you to know it.”

Learn more about Charles in the behind-the-scenes video below.

And if you were born before the late ’80s and want to know what the kids think about Baseball, watch Brockmire Wednesdays at 10P on IFC.

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Crown Jules

Amanda Peet FTW on Brockmire

Amanda Peet brings it on Brockmire Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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GIFS via Giphy

On Brockmire, Jules is the unexpected yin to Jim Brockmire’s yang. Which is saying a lot, because Brockmire’s yang is way out there. Played by Amanda Peet, Jules is hard-drinking, truth-spewing, baseball-loving…everything Brockmire is, and perhaps what he never expected to encounter in another human.

“We’re the same level of functional alcoholic.”

But Jules takes that commonality and transforms it into something special: a new beginning. A new beginning for failing minor league baseball team “The Frackers”, who suddenly about-face into a winning streak; and a new beginning for Brockmire, whose life gets a jumpstart when Jules lures him back to baseball. As for herself, her unexpected connection with Brockmire gives her own life a surprising and much needed goose.

“You’re a Goddamn Disaster and you’re starting To look good to me.”

This palpable dynamic adds depth and complexity to the narrative and pushes the series far beyond expected comedy. See for yourself in this behind-the-scenes video (and brace yourself for a unforgettable description of Brockmire’s genitals)…

Want more about Amanda Peet? She’s all over the place, and has even penned a recent self-reflective piece in the New York Times.

And of course you can watch the Jim-Jules relationship hysterically unfold in new episodes of Brockmire, every Wednesday at 10PM on IFC.

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