Animal House: Matt Damon Needs Your Love in We Bought a Zoo

When I told someone I was off to a screening of We Bought a Zoo the other day, the response was an eye roll. The reaction is understandable: Save for two music docs—an Elton John–Leon Russell album making-of and that Pearl Jam anniversary infomercial—Cameron Crowe has been MIA since 2005’s autobiographical Elizabethtown, about the prodigal big-city son returneth to his small town to fetch his dead daddy’s ashes for a long drive to nowhere. Crowe took a tanning over that weepy wreck. Both Elizabethtown and his earlier Vanilla Sky were as disappointing as they were ambitious, which is being kind on both fronts. Crowe tried going big, and he was sent home.

So now he returns with a film he did not write, but rewrote, based on the real-life story of Benjamin Mee, a Brit newspaper columnist who picked up from his idyllic new digs in the South of France and went off to rescue an English zoo with his family, including a son, a daughter, and a dying wife. The movie changes these circumstances around a bit: The wife is six months gone before Benjamin (the quite American Matt Damon), moody 14-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford), and bright-‘n’-shiny seven-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones, made for the movies) consider the move. And in the movie, they don’t relocate from the French paradise to the English countryside, but from a Los Angeles suburb to the rolling hills of Southern California, where Dad hopes to escape the ghost who haunts them all. And look who’s here to help: Scarlett Johansson.

Crowe is back to what he’s good at: small stories populated by everyday people. (He has always veered toward being a small-screen guy who worked big screen; Say Anything . . ., Singles, Jerry Maguire, and Almost Famous could have been prime-time pilots.) Helping Crowe’s odds is Damon, who does a superior job of vacillating between wide-eyed (“Look! A grizzly bear!”) and misty-eyed (“I wish my dead wife weren’t dead.”) without turning Benjamin into a complete sap. We see him at the film’s beginning as an “adventure writer” for the Los Angeles Times who flies into the center of storms and asks terrorists a cutesy question to which the answer is “Toy Story 2.” But soon Dylan is expelled from school (his drawings are violent, and he’s stealing, and, oh, sorry about your dead mom) and Benjamin is about to get shuffled off to the blogs by his boss—so, time to go house-hunting. And now time to buy a dilapidated zoo on the verge of being shuttered and sold for the land alone. It’s populated with lions, tigers, and bears—and humans, too, among them Johansson as the longtime zookeeper (well, assistant, but shhh), Angus Macfadyen as a visionary enclosure designer, and Elle Fanning as an angel-faced love interest for Dylan. We didn’t just buy a zoo; we bought a new family! So Crowe.

On the surface, it all sounds so terribly mawkish, and I haven’t even mentioned the on-the-nose soundtrack that cues up Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” during a long storm. Or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Don’t Come Around Here No More” when Dylan gets the boot from school. Or Wilco and Billy Bragg’s “Airline to Heaven” when the Mees start looking for new digs. Or Benjamin’s reluctance to let the zookeepers put down, painlessly, the ailing 17-year-old tiger aching for an adios. We get it—he has been down this awful road before.

The cynics will scoff and dismiss it all as manipulative, the heartstring-tugging machine on hyperdrive. But this movie isn’t for them; did you not see the PG? It’s a sweet, sincere, utterly affable kids’ movie about how parents are all kinds of screwed up and unable to tell their kids what they want or show them how they feel. The scene in which Benjamin and Dylan have their hallway shout-off (“Help me, damn it! Help me!”) is as wrenching as it is inevitable. And Damon has never been more lovable—the guy looks like he could use a hug.


Almost Shameless

Reviews of Elizabethtown will begin in one of two ways: The reviewer will compare Cameron Crowe’s latest to the bizarrely similar Garden State, or she’ll quip on the opening voiceover by Orlando Bloom, a rumination on the difference between “failure” and a “fiasco.”

There’s no avoiding it, so here goes. Both Elizabethtown and Garden State involve a despondent single guy in flux returning home after a death—in this case, Bloom’s Drew Baylor must retrieve the body of his father, who has died visiting Kentucky relations. As in Garden State, the despondent lad’s life is changed by a gutsy woman and some killer tunes. But where the earlier flick, in its smallness, felt like an honest representation of writer-director-star Zach Braff’s struggles with notions of home, Crowe’s is a hodgepodge of great ideas and moods in search of a plot to enrich.

Great idea number one: Spoof ’90s lifestyle culture largesse. We begin with a lengthy sequence about Drew’s career plunge after designing a flop running shoe for a hegemonic company. His boss, Phil, played with Glengarry gusto by Alec Baldwin, is a giddily drawn billionaire spiritualist-sadist, a fun conflation of two iconic “Phils,” Nike’s Phil Knight and the NBA’s Phil Jackson. But unlike Braff’s lo-fi shorthand intro that humanized his wage-slave antihero, Baldwin’s bigness and the shiny mocked milieu leave Bloom a blank. If Say Anything‘s Lloyd Dobler was the perfect boyfriend and Jerry Maguire the perfect dick, Drew Baylor is the perfect ghost.

Jumping way too soon into his big-song, window-stare contemplation mode, Crowe takes identification with Drew for granted. Though it’s played for laughs, the fact that
mom Susan Sarandon and sister Judy Greer are too frazzled to go to Kentucky comes off as simply weird. Sarandon seems as confused as we are that her character would take tap lessons instead of making funeral arrangements, and Greer just seems an unfunny version of her Arrested Development nut job.

But then there’s great idea number two: casting Kirsten Dunst. Drew meets flight attendant Claire on a plane to Kentucky, and Dunst, like Kate Hudson before her, devours her role as the wise, goofy, music-savvy goddess. Like Woody Allen, Crowe repeatedly scripts the perfect girlfriend (without, thank god, injecting himself into the fantasy). But Drew is such a void that Claire’s obsessive affection for him verges on stalker-esque. So too do the suffocating attentions of Drew’s Kentucky cousins. Without an emotional anchor, absurd touches veer into almost Lynchian creepiness—as when Drew arrives in Elizabethtown and everyone wordlessly points him toward his family’s street.

Crowe’s confident, clockwork tearjerking often seems baseless. Just when we’re sure Drew hardly knew his dad, moving soft-focus flashbacks of father and son sucker punch us
out of nowhere. Crowe’s mastery of the music-aided emotional catharsis is in fine form; it just needs a real story. Of course, you’ll have long given up on narrative by the time you reach great idea number three: the perfect-girlfriend road trip map and mix tape. By the time Drew ditches the titular town and heads west alone with his dad’s ashes, following a route charted and scored by his muse, we’re as ecstatic to be on the road as he is, and the sad, funny shots of him talking to and patting the urn in the passenger seat might make you cry from both the inherent pathos and for the movie this could have been. It’s not a fiasco, but as the voiceover admits, anyone can fail.


Shave Anything

“There’s a difference between a failure and a fiasco,” shoe designer Drew (Orlando Bloom) says in Elizabethtown—a difference quantified by the 12 minutes Cameron Crowe trimmed from the widely dismissed “unfinished” version unveiled at Venice and Toronto. A little spit shine has transformed an unshapely, undisciplined movie—inspired by Crowe’s experiences after his father’s death—into something professional, if still irritatingly self-involved. Copious dead time has been shaved off. Drew expounds more succinctly on “last looks” and has fewer run-ins with kooky newlyweds-to-be Chuck and Cindy. Crowe has removed at least one scene of funeral planning and tightened the meandering road trip that concludes the film, which quasi-girlfriend Kirsten Dunst has timed (by landmark!) to her favorite songs. Despite criticism, Drew’s mother’s eulogy-cum-breakdown remains largely intact, with Susan Sarandon still musing about a neighbor’s erection and tap dancing to “Moon River.” But the single most fatuous footnote has been excised: In the original ending, not only does Drew get the girl, see the nation, and learn the true meaning of family, but the winged “Spasmotica” shoe that gets him fired at the outset turns out to be bigger than the Pump circa 1992—some kid discovers the sneaker’s wind-chime-like aural properties. For once, it seems, Crowe realized his movie already had enough music.