Monday, August 20, 2012

Review: We Bought a Zoo

Cameron Crowe, where have you been?  That was the first thought that crossed my mind when I realized We Bought a Zoo was directed by the man responsible for some truly great movies including Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire, and Say Anything.  When last I saw his name in the credits it was attached to the incredibly forgettable Elizabethtown back in 2005 – a movie so mediocre that it would not have surprised me to learn that that filmmaking experience had pushed him into retirement.  Well, having seen his latest film starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, I am happy to say that it is definitely a step in the right direction for the re-emergent filmmaker.

The film, based on a true story, follows the life of Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) – a recent widower who buys a dilapidated zoo in hopes of healing familial wounds and building a better life for his children.  Along the way he learns a lot about himself, the zoo staff, and the animals residing on his land.

With this project, Crowe does a nice job of delivering Aline Brosh McKenna’s script to the big screen.  This film is not as retro hip as Almost Famous or as highly stylized as Vanilla Sky, but what Crowe showcases in this movie is a mature approach to storytelling developed by paying special attention to the details that define the various relationships in the film.  In turn, all these details come together to created layered characters who act in ways consistent with the tribulations from which their scars have been born.

Another aspect of the movie that helps Crowe improve upon his Elizabethtown debacle (where he worked with Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst) is the quality of talent headlining this cast.  It should come as no surprise to anyone that Matt Damon is good in this film.  He is a very accomplished actor who continually proves that he can do more than command the unsteady-camera world of Jason Bourne.  Seeing Damon take on a paternal role - that of a man haunted by the memory of his deceased wife and struggling with single parenthood – provides a window into the kind of roles he could transition to as he grows long in the tooth (though Liam Neeson continues to challenge the conventions of age in film).

Playing opposite Damon is Scarlett Johansson as zookeeper Kelly Foster.   As an actress Johansson is hit or miss and many a film pundit has wondered what you’d be left with if you robbed Johansson of pronounced cosmetics, push-up bras, and forgiving lighting.  The answer to this question in We Bought a Zoo is a good performance (and possibly her best since Lost in Translation).  She not only more than holds her own in and around the zoo and develops great chemistry with Damon, but also her character's emotional I.Q. becomes one of the driving cathartic force in the movie; and that is largely due to Johansson’s performance. 

As for the rest of the cast, Thomas Haden Church is his usual dry sarcastic self and adds a nice subtle comedic touch to the film as do Angus Macfadyen and John Michael HigginsMaggie Elizabeth Jones and Colin Ford are solid as Damon’s children and do as good a job as any other recent child actor - not named Chloe Moretz - that immediately comes to mind.  Lastly, Patrick Fugit (who is hardly recognizable) reunites with his Almost Famous director to round out a supporting cast that as a whole does a commendable job of balancing out the film.

So what we're left with is a movie that has a good plot, a good director, and a good cast, so it should surprise no one that the finished product is very solid.  The movie won’t blow you away for being exceptional in any one area, but it feels authentic and should resonate with viewers of all ages.  It is not going to land on any of my favorites lists, but I definitely walked away from the film feeling entertained.  I recommend it as a very solid rental.  And for you Matt Damon fans out there, next up is the much anticipated Elysium due for a theatrical release in 2013.

Standout Performance: The nod goes to Scarlett Johansson for delivering a solid performance while going somewhat against the grain in terms of what the public has come to expect from her.


  1. Only a B??? I really liked this one. Good review though.