If there’s one thing Cameron Crowe’s movies all have in common (up until late 2010 one might’ve said ‘Nancy Wilson’ — sadly, divorce papers have seen that trend thwarted) it’s their hair-pointing, throat- trampolining feeling of hope and inspiration. From ”Say Anything”’s tale of star-crossed lovers with everything against them to Jerry Maguire’s inability to put his woman before his work and, almost famously, a young man’s determination to succeed as a rock journalist in Crowe-bio ”Almost Famous”, all of Crowe’s films come complete with a guarantee : You will exit the theatre standing a little taller, smiling a little wider, and feeling a little bit better about the world.
Crowe is a man who knows how to put a smile on an audiences face. And sure, from his delicately placed AM radio-style music catalogue to his staple its-all-gonna-be-okay romantic subplot, he’s always walked that fine line between schmaltz and satisfaction, and yet, still, he rarely leaves an attendee untouched by at least one moment in his cinematic saga of love, life and learning to grow.
Crowe lays on the manipulative schmaltz a little harder this time, but ”We Bought a Zoo” will still nonetheless please and purify the more sassy and sad. Its, much like his other flicks, cinematic Prozac.
Based on the true story of Benjamin Nee , Matt Damon plays a widowed father of two who is so desperate for change and an exit from grief that he buys a beautiful new home… and the zoo that comes along with it. Though Benjamin has no idea how to nurse back to health a sick tiger or round up a loose bear, with the help of the staff of the soon-to-re-open zoo – Scarlett Johansson plays the hot zookeeper, of course – and his kids, he’ll find himself a purpose and place.
”We Bought A Zoo”, and likely because it isn’t written, only directed by Crowe, does feel slightly more familiar than most of the filmmakers earlier movies. It’s beats, plot and character arcs are easily predicted and the narrative structure dry humps Deja vu.
Without Crowe on story concept duty there’s just not as many surprises in the film, or landmark moments of inspiring storytelling (let alone moments we’ll be quoting for years, like ”Jerry Maguire”’s “Show me the Money” or ”Almost Famous”’s Tiny Dancer-in-the-Tour-Bus scene), and several moments (not helped by a couple of miscast supporting players) don’t ring as true as what they’re supposed to.
But on the other hand, one can’t imagine anyone but Crowe being able to make as good a movie from ”Zoo” as Crowe has. He may be a hired gun, and the film does suffer slightly because of that, but Crowe knows how to make an audience pleaser and he applies his tried and True techniques here too. He’s quite the button-pusher this guy.
Atypically, Crowe has assembled a terrific cast, headlined by the always-dependable Matt Damon, in a rare everyman role. Fun, self-deprecating and living up to his age , Damon’s performance won’t win him an Oscar but it will win him some hearts (much in the same way Tom Cruise did as Jerry Maguire).
Scarlett Johansson, as head zookeeper and obvious love interest, reminds us why she’s always in work too, thrashing out a cute, credible and likeable turn as a young woman who audiences won’t mind is hitting on a grieving widow.
The kids in the film, Colin Ford and Maggie Elizabeth Jones, are as equally as good as their adult counterparts and crush several of the slightly miscast supporting players – namely John Michael Higgins and J.B Smoove (who would be much more at home in a ”Doctor Dolittle” sequel) – with their immerse and level-headed performances.
Crowe will get you crying, he will get you laughing and he will get you smiling when ha a boy and a girl lovingly interlock. But mostly, he will get you believing in the good things again. He’ll temporarily trick you into believing the world isn’t so a horrible place and for a moment, have you convincing yourself you’re going to make a change for the better upon exiting the cinema (and then you piss away that plan by yelling at an automatic parking machine for charging you $26.50 just to see a film).