I do go out to movies periodically, but mostly, I watch at home. Gentle fairies waft through the sky, bringing me movies in lovely red envelopes. Sometimes the movies they deliver are happy surprises (“The Expendables! Did I put that on my queue. How . . . nice”); sometimes they’re anxiously anticipated. And one day, I really do believe, if I clap my hands loudly enough, they may even deliver the second season of Downton Abbey. In the meanwhile, over the weekend, we got We Bought a Zoo.
When it came out, I remember seeing Matt Damon on Jon Stewart, talking about it. “Well,” he said, “it’s about a shattered, damaged family, who buy a zoo to help them heal.” Pause. Then “I know, I know. But it’s a Cameron Crowe movie! I had to do it!” I understood his hesitation. It’s a Family movie. It’s Disney. It’s about the healing power of wonderful animals. It’s exactly the kind of movie that ruined Eddie Murphy’s career. There’s a major ickiness risk, a movie like this.
Matt Damon, of all movie star type actors, has done perhaps the best job of career management of any of them. He’s sort of the anti-Nicolas Cage in that regard. While his best pal Ben Affleck has ruined his reputation doing rubbish film after rubbish film, Damon has worked, over the last three years, with Steven Soderburgh, Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorcese, the Coen Brothers and now Cameron Crowe. He does great work in great movies by great directors. In True Grit, he was at best the second lead. But it was a great film, and he was great in it.
So: We Bought a Zoo. And it’s great. Sentimental? Absolutely. Predictable? Completely. Three seconds after Scarlett Johansson appears, as the zookeeper of this small country zoo, you know she’s going to end up with Damon. Two seconds after we see Elle Fanning (Dakota’s more talented younger sister), we know she’s going to have a cute adolescent romance with Damon’s son, a terrific young actor named Colin Ford. Is the movie Uplifting, with Family Values? Yes, indeed. Set all that aside. It’s still great.
Damon plays a newspaper reporter named Benjamin Mee, whose wife has died a few months before the movie starts, and who is not dealing at all with it. He’s got two kids, an adorable seven year old, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), and a fourteen year old, Dylan (Ford), who has been expelled from school for stealing and for his drawings, which are creepy but good. They buy a zoo. It’s a zoo in terrible trouble–the previous owners bailed, the state’s running it, Damon has to put all kinds of money in for repairs. Understaffed, with a main attraction, a tiger, that’s old and sick. Damon’s got a nest egg from his father–it’s gone in a month, to the mortification of Damon’s brother, Duncan (Thomas Haden Church). Turns out Damon’s wife left him some money–he blows through that too.
So the major dramatic questions are: will they save the zoo, will Damon find happiness, will he and his son reconcile? And ten seconds in, we know the answers to all those questions. It never surprises us at all, at least in terms of plot.
It’s still great. It’s a Cameron Crowe movie, and the writing’s great. There’s a scene, a long scene, between Damon and Ford that’s just terrific–a father and son, trying to reach out, in terrible pain, with no idea how to talk to each other. The movie has great music all the way through it–well, that’s a Cameron Crowe trademark, of course. Johansson is great, as is Haden Church, as is Elle Fanning. There are like six minor zoo worker characters who are all wonderful. And Damon’s great too, honest, understated.
I found myself imagining this as an Eddie Murphy movie. The farting lion jokes. The physical comedy involving bear poop. The facile resolution. We Bought a Zoo doesn’t ever surprise us, except for all the missteps it avoids, and how solidly it’s rooted in rounded, interesting characters.
Crowe needed this, I think. His last movie, Elizabethtown, was seven years ago, a deeply personal film that just didn’t work. It’s been eleven years since Vanilla Sky, twelve since Almost Famous. Meanwhile, he’s done, what? A Pearl Jam doc? He needed a comeback film. This is a good one.
Did I cry at the end? Uh, yeah. Embarrassing. But it earned it. Check it out. It’s better than you think it could possibly be.