WE BOUGHT A ZOO B
USA (124 mi) 2011 d: Cameron Crowe
You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it. —Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon)
Family fare from rock ‘n’ roll counterculture stalwart Cameron Crowe who has been off the radar for six years, making something soft and cuddly for the kids, using a fairly predictable format, a single dad (Matt Damon) with two kids trying to recover from the devastating aftermath of the death of his wife, the love of his life, where each are still reeling emotionally. Without ever getting deeply profound or complex, instead this is a fairly sweet portrait of what might be termed just off the fringe from mainstream life in America, using a similar indie template as LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006) which features a morose teenage son along with an overly perky and precocious young sister. Never veering far from the center, Damon as Benjamin Mee is just an ordinary guy trying to hold his family together, but when his morbidly introverted teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford) gets kicked out of school, apparently unable to control the urges from his dark side, the family has to make a new start somewhere. Dylan’s gloom is matched by the sunny optimism expressed from 7-year old Rose (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), a first class scene stealer who is one of the hits of the film, as her dad never talks down to her, as she’s the stabilizing force within the family. The search for a new home is led by an overly optimistic, first-day-on-the-job realtor JB Smoove who reels out a half dozen almost and not quite homes before finally pulling out all stops with something out of the ordinary, an off-the-beaten-track fixer upper tailor made for those not afraid to making a commitment, as it includes a working zoo that is closed to the public as it has fallen into a state of disarray.
Rose is thrilled with all the exotic animals, while Dylan sinks deeper into depression where life sucks moving away from all his friends to a dump out in the middle of nowhere where he’s even more isolated from reality. However there’s a working team in place to keep the zoo running, which includes Elle Fanning as Lily, another upbeat and sunshiny girl that immediately takes to Dylan, wondering why his drawings are all so dark. The zookeeper is Scarlett Johansson as Kelly in a less than glamorous role, where she actually plays a practical person with a level head, while her helpers are a band of misfits who would not be out of place in a theatrical rendition of Treasure Island, as they’re a little zany around the edges. What works best here is Cameron Crowe’s easygoing writing and directing that slowly allows the material to play out, scored by Jon Thor Birgisson, otherwise known as former Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi, where Crowe truly excels with his use of music, starting with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers Don't Come Around Here No More - YouTube (4:36), but eventually adding the tender whimsy of Cat Stevens: Don't Be Shy on YouTube (2:54) the poetic lamentations of Bob Dylan - Buckets of Rain - YouTube (3:26), and the rather clever use of Temple of the Dog "Hunger Strike" - YouTube (4:39), all of which add a feelgood dimension to the film. Make no mistake, it’s the music that gives this film its soul and makes it feel different, as the songs are cleverly intermixed. There’s a nice appreciation for quiet dialogue, where Damon in particular gets plenty of airtime with each of his kids, both of whom are a central part of the film, but it also gives him an opportunity to blend in with the zoo loonies which help take his mind off his everpresent world of grief.
Of course there’s a hint of romance between Damon and Johansson, but even the tiny bit offered is almost too much, as it seems so expected, where the more clever option is to leave it off the table and explore their relationship in other ways, which is exactly what Crowe does with the film, mostly through the inclusion of other characters. Another surprise is the appearance of Thomas Hayden Church as Damon’s older brother, always a welcome appearance in any film, who for the better part of the picture is the button down and conservative influence, the supposed voice of reason, which of course Damon ignores, choosing to turn over his life to a kind of reckless abandon. No way this option should ever work, but with a Cameron Crowe film, it’s almost the essential choice, where The Road Not Taken becomes the visionary path. The film wears its heart on its sleeves and couldn’t be more heartwarming, complete with exotic zoo animals, fun for the whole family, but also includes a major father and son meltdown that has an air of truth about it, but it’s too easily resolved, feeling overly contrived, where money seems like the answer to so many problems, an odd choice for a film with anti-capitalist leanings. When it veers off the beaten track and delves into a world of problems, there’s a strange fascination with the dysfunctional train wreck about to happen, particularly poignant with the bleak and blissful Randy Newman - I Think It's Going to Rain Today - YouTube (3:27), but when the world turns out to be a hopeful and happy place without the dark underworld depicted in Dylan’s drawings that never feature any sunlight, it’s hard to trust there’s anything real about this kind of surreal and smiley face ending, though it does feel warm and sweet.