Mixed Tape Reviews: Unfocused ‘Zoo’ Can’t Buy Cameron Crowe A Much-Needed Comeback

Nov 30th, 2011 | By | Category: News, Sights
The stars of We Bought a Zoo

Scarlett Johansson and Matt Damon

What I always loved about Cameron Crowe’s better movies was his ability to turn cheese into pizza. What I mean by this is that he takes highly emotional stories that would be terrible in the hands of other filmmakers, and with the right ingredients of great actors and essential truths, he manages to craft good films that most people enjoy.

It’s not uncommon to hear people list Crowe’s films Say Anything, Jerry Maguire or Almost Famous as one of their all-time favorite movies. But in 2005, Crowe released Elizabethtown, a film where the director dared to venture into the Southern landscapes of Kentucky and ultimately fumbled due to the film’s cultural and emotional inauthenticity. It also didn’t help that the cute but completely talentless Orlando Bloom played his lead.

The reason I am recounting Crowe’s career to date thus far is to illustrate why he so desperately needs a comeback. Sadly, his situation has only gotten worse with We Bought a Zoo, a juggling match of dramatic story threads. The only problem is that with so much going on narratively, nothing in the story seems to matter very much.

Based on the memoir of Benjamin Mee, Zoo tells the story of a journalist and pathological adventurer (Matt Damon) who recently lost his wife and must raise his two children on his own in the middle of a large city. Feeling the same yearning for change that nearly all Cameron Crowe protagonists feel in the opening act, Mee decides to uproot his family and move to a new home in the countryside, which also happens to include a nearly condemned zoo.

Why a zoo? I can’t say I was able to figure this out, which might be one of the movie’s bigger problems. Mee then attempts to repair the zoo in order to pass the muster of a USDA inspector (John Michael Higgins) who acts so goofy, it’s like he fell out of an awful kids movie from the ‘90s. On top of this, Mee is also trying to cope with the death of his wife, patch things up with his troubled teenage son (Colin Ford), keep his finances afloat, carry on some sort of relationship with his brother (Thomas Hayden Church), and fall in love with a zookeeper played by Scarlett Johansson.

To your average red-blooded male, the latter challenge might seem easy to handle, but the movie’s so cluttered by all of Mee’s many pursuits that none of them seem to matter that much in the end. Even worse, Crowe attempts to warm over his scenes with an appalling series of music choices that tell us what to feel even when we don’t feel those intended emotions whatsoever. There were at least three instances where a piano begins to plink out a rather inspirational tune during moments when it was impossible for anyone in the audience to feel inspired.

The final act ends predictably enough, but then there’s this infuriating epilogue that involves what I can only describe as a ghost that feels so false, so unearned and hokey, I wanted to see the credits again to make sure this film was in fact written and directed by Crowe. To my surprise, I found out that it was not. Crowe directed the film and wrote part of it. However, he shares the writing credit with Aline Brosh McKenna, the same scribe who penned such hollow, formulaic rom coms as 27 Dresses and Morning Glory.

So the question is, why would such a talented writer as Crowe allow someone else to write his scripts? A mildly adept director at best, his ticket to ride in the American filmmaking scene was the fact that he always wrote great screenplays. Maybe he lost confidence in his own writing after the beating he took for Elizabethtown.

Anyway, true fans of Crowe will still savor the one part of the film that was most certainly penned by its director. It’s a heated exchange of dialogue between Damon’s character and his son that’s punchy and emotionally candid as anything Crowe has ever written. Sadly, I can’t say this scene justifies watching the moments that unfolded before and after it.

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