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.