In a fit of anger when confronted with the fact he may have to put down the Bengal tiger living in his backyard, Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) lets out a scream, acknowledging to himself and the others around him that his purchase of a small-scale wildlife preserve was an act of desperation. Mee bought a zoo, Cameron Crowe made a movie.
Crowe’s adaptation of Mee’s memoir is an odd duck, which may be the only animal that isn’t somewhere on the Rosemoor Wildlife Preserve, which Mee buys for his two children as a way of bringing them together after his wife’s death. (In the film, it’s the inciting incident, though in the book, the wife was alive before the move.) But death can be a relative term, and coming after the commercial and critical shortfall of Crowe’s last film “Elizabethtown,” it seems the former rock journalist has put together a greatest hits collection of sorts, comforting in places since the lyrics haven’t lost their luster, yet when cobbled together out of popularity rather than flow, it results in something disjointed and lacking the delicate human touch that offset Crowe’s instinct to oversweeten things.
Buying Rosemoor fits in line with the bold moves that have often defined the behavior of previous Crowe heroes – Lloyd Dobler played “In Your Eyes” outside Diane Court’s bedroom window, Jerry Maguire wrote a mission statement. But Benjamin is a different kind of lead for Crowe – in over his head, but not down and out. He is uninterested in the price of the 18-acre homestead when he and his daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones, perhaps the most adorable child in the history of cinema) go looking for real estate and it’s never mentioned as the agent (J.B. Smoove) does his best to prevent him from buying the property. Also not mentioned, but a welcome discovery is that he’s buying a surrogate family as well in the zoo’s staff, led by the no-nonsense Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson).
Thankfully, there’s no real culture clash between the zookeepers and their new owners, the fence-mending limited to the dilapidated enclosures of the zoo itself, which needs to be brought to code before a reopening can commence. Not so coincidentally, these repairs coincide with Benjamin’s attempts to reconnect with his 14-year-old Dylan (Colin Ford), who stews silently for most of the film, drawing pictures of beheadings after he’s been expelled from school and pulled into a remote location that his friends won’t visit. Then again, the revelation halfway through the film that he has friends is somewhat jarring since part of the problem with “We Bought a Zoo” is that it doesn’t feel as though it’s part of a larger world, the humans as closed off as the animals.
We know Benjamin is worldly from an opening sequence that sees him braving a Category 4 hurricane and joking with dictators about what “Toy Story” film they prefer in the career he left behind as a journalist (with a sad epilogue from this particular director when Benjamin refuses an online column from his boss and passes by a series of empty cubicles on his way out of the newsroom). However, the zoo is populated by characters that appear to be far more interesting than they are and uninterested in leaving their native habitat, due in large part to Crowe and co-writer Aline Brosh McKenna’s script, which serves the story far more than the actors.
Some have already said that this is Crowe’s most mainstream film given that there’s a direct plot to follow and cute animals to turn to for reaction shots, but if so, it’s come at the expense of the characters who surround Benjamin, who either come off as broadly one-dimensional or too underdeveloped to earn the magisterial heights the score from Sigur Ros frontman Jonsi suggests for them by the end. It’s the first time in one of his films that you’re reminded they have parts to play in this story rather than having stories of their own, with those initially skeptical of Benjamin’s plan – chiefly, Dylan and John Michael Higgins’ cartoonishly officious zoo inspector – and the women onhand – Kelly and the zoo’s resident hayseed Lily (Elle Fanning) – all waiting to be won over rather than exist for any other purpose.
This is especially egregious in the case of Kelly and Lily, since Johansson arguably gives her best performance to date as the former, able to play to all her strengths physically and emotionally, radiant in mud-splattered jeans and even more so when she’s unable to censor herself from passionately speaking the truth about the zoo or herself. But in the film’s determined narrative, she’s turned off rather quickly, all but disappearing in the third act, and Fanning’s Lily whose entire livelihood is reduced to being a love interest for Dylan, immediately offering to bring sandwiches to him when he arrives and stops bringing them when he doesn’t show any interest, the kind of simplification that undercuts the emotional truths the film tries to get at.
Occasionally, “We Bought a Zoo” actually gets there, and without the assistance of the winsome Cat Stevens and Neil Young-heavy soundtrack. Damon is let loose to play Benjamin and he’s just unhinged enough to sell a lot of the New Agey wisdom that comes out the conversations between he and his son and his brother (Thomas Haden Church), though the conversations themselves feel forced more often than not. Every bit the “modern-day adventurer” he proclaims the entire staff of Rosemoor to be upon its purchase, Damon’s Benjamin preaches life to be lived with “20 seconds of insane courage” and though it’s easy to get swept up in his wild-eyed enthusiasm, it’s telling when you learn he borrowed the “insane courage” speech from his brother to tell his son.
But then recycling is one of the things that does come naturally to “We Bought a Zoo.” Some scenes, like the lightly surreal sequence in which Benjamin remembers his dead wife while flipping through pictures late at night on his laptop that recalls a similar moment in “Elizabethtown,” are direct lifts, while Crowe’s overriding belief that the world isn’t dictated by cynicism doesn’t ring as true when the film itself feels cynically designed as a tearjerker with pat answers to all of Mee family’s problems.
Yet even after two hours, I wanted to spend more time in the company of the Mees instead of less, convinced that if the story had been allowed to breathe, “We Bought a Zoo” could be as moving as it aims to be. As it stands, the animals may be restored to their former glory at Rosemoor, but the humans deserve better.