Movie Review: Safe, Forgettable WE BOUGHT A ZOO Does Cameron Crowe No Favors

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Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown is one of the great movie fiascos, and the reason it’s so bad is because Crowe is so good.  This was supposed to be his Apartment, for God’s sake, and like Heaven’s Gate before it, every misguided or broken moment comes from a filmmaker committed to realizing something that should not be.  Only the very (deluded) great could think Orlando Bloom at his least charming capable of handling a romantic comedy.  Could try to put a positive light on Kirsten Dunst’s Manic-Pixie Dream Girl.  These beats are operatically awful, and they hold your attention with a dread fascination.  You may hate Elizabethtown, but you’ll never forget it.

I mention Elizabethtown because its excesses are storied in Movie Fiasco Lore; its critical and commercial drubbing scared Crowe big time.  How do I know that?

Because his follow-up, the dramedy We Bought a Zoo, has none of Elizabethtown‘s misguided zeal to a fault.  If Elizabethtown found Crowe basking in his auteur excesses, We Bought a Zoo sees him licking his wounds; this is the work of a man afraid to distinguish himself.  Other than fine performances from Matt Damon and Scarlet Johansson, We Bought a Zoo‘s defining characteristic is its utter forgetability.  The film neatly erases itself from your memory immediately as the credits roll.

This fuzzy anonymity would be bad enough if it only reflected on Crowe.  His great movies—Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous, Vanilla Sky—thrive off his personal obsessions; Crowe makes (I almost said “made,” but I don’t want to think that the Almost Famous Cameron Crowe is gone forever) movies about decent, flawed people finding something to care about in an otherwise counterfeit existence and grabbing hold of that salvation with their teeth.

We Bought a Zoo has the potential for such heartfelt expression; the premise has Damon’s heartbroken widower throwing caution to the wind when he buys a zoo as a means of emotionally rehabilitating himself and his family.  Problem is, Crowe doesn’t commit to this situation, absurdities and all.  He just plays things out at a nice amble, tossing in an apropos pop song here, a “hilariously” quirky side-character there (worst offenders: Angus Macfadyen’s lusty architect, Elle Fanning’s awkward country-girl, and J.B. Smoove’s jabbering real-estate agent).  Slap in a few heartfelt montages, and that’s your movie, except we know no more about these characters at the end than we did at the start.  We never really feel why Damon needs the zoo to move on, or why this particular decision is necessary for uniting his family.  They buy a zoo because the movie would not exist otherwise; you yearn for the passion that drove Jerry Maguire to quit his successful day job, or the love for rock-and-roll powering Almost Famous‘ William Miller through a way-too-premature coming-of-age.  If Crowe normally wears his heart on his sleeve, We Bought a Zoo illustrates what happens when’s Said Organ is firmly ensconced within his feet.

However, Crowe isn’t doing violence simply to his own soul.  He has to drag in Benjamin Mee, the journalist and author whose autobiographical memoir inspired the film.  Mee’s real story is full of hardships both large and small; not only did his own wife die shortly after his family moved into the zoo, but the daily maintenance of running the Dartmoor Zoological Park (called Rosemoor Zoological Park in the film) kept throwing this cultured writer challenges he initially thought himself unfit to tackle, challenges like frightening animal escapes and constant financial woes and daily construction problems and daily feedings and animal medical care, all of which make it into the film in sitcom-ready scenarios.  Crowe and co-writer Aline Brosh McKenna introduce these potentially harrowing element, only to then defuse them with a laugh or a sudden (and improbable) influx of extra cash.  The movie’s biggest flaw is its handling of the villain, a cartoonishly pompous safety inspector played by John Michael Higgins.  In real life, getting a zoo up to code is a necessary and frequent occurrence; Higgins attacks the part like the Dean in Animal House, making life hell for our plucky underdogs simply because…it’s his job to ensure thorough and proper animal care?   Does. Not. Compute.

We Bought a Zoo lets down Mee’s very real struggles, and it shows a great filmmaker in decline.  Crowe’s mentor, Billy Wilder, never let failure beat him; without Irma la Douce, we might have never gotten The Fortune Cookie.  Being a great moviemaker is half the battle—you also have to have the courage to get back up when you fall.

Now that sounds like a good Cameron Crowe movie.

I can complain about the movie; I can’t complain about Fox Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray.  DP Rodrigo Prieto’s work has a finely detailed glow to it, and the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track switches expertly between quiet dialogue and louder musical bombast.

Better still are the many and comprehensive supplements.  We get a commentary with Crowe, Smoove, and editor Mark Livolsi; forty minutes of deleted scenes; a gag reel, trailer, and photo gallery; featurettes on the real Mee and Jonsi’s lilting score; and the 75-minute We Shot a Zoo behind-the-scenes documentary.

The set also comes with DVD and digital copies.

We Bought a Zoo illustrates one man’s reaction to tragedy, but it’s not Ben Mee coping with the death of his wife.  It’s Cameron Crowe aching from his Elizabethtown failure.  Too precious and safe by a mile, We Bought a Zoo advises finding “twenty seconds of insane courage.”  Too bad it can’t do this itself.

We Bought a Zoo is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

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