Writer/Director Cameron Crowe enjoys making movies for himself. That isn't a slight. In the past he's found more than enough of the 'uncool' to want to journey along, reminiscing about youth (Singles), indulging in nostalgia (Almost Famous), struggling with the eventuality of death (Vanilla Sky, Elizabethtown) or following one of his favourite bands on tour (Pearl Jam Twenty). That substantial dose of autobiography on display has often been the draw behind his following. But sometimes, looking through someone else's photo album does start to become a little fucking tiresome. So what's We Bought A Zoo all about?
Constantly reminded of his recently deceased wife – and with a fridge full of lasagne from pitying neighbours – Benjamin decides a break is required if he's ever going to move on. He jacks in his job as a journalist and, triggered by his son's expulsion from school, sets out to find a new neighbourhood, one that isn't haunted by the past. When an estate agent, trying to suit Ben's specifications, leads him to a fully working zoo for sale he finds this new life in the most unlikely of places. As the title suggests, he buys it, investing in all that comes with it, including a depressed bear, a sickly tiger and a ragtag bunch of zoo workers led by Scarlett Johansson's lips and quizzical stare.
For followers of Crowe it'll come as no surprise that We Bought A Zoo is loaded with the grief of losing someone you love, coming as it does on the back of his divorce from Heart's Nancy Wilson.
In fact, large portions of the film feel like Season 7 of Curb Your Enthusiasm, with Crowe failing to come to terms with the separation, offering a piece of celluloid as an ode to the lost love. By a strange coincidence the film even borrows two notable alumni from the HBO show in the form of Leon Black (JB Smoove) and 'The Carpool Hooker', Kym Whitley. Knowing Crowe's love of pop culture, perhaps the coincidence isn't that strong. Are you watching Ms. Wilson?
Of course any Crowe film needs a Cameron Crowe soundtrack and to hammer home the point of what the film is truly about, (Heart...break) it's filled with Cat Stevens, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Bob Dylan and Bon Iver lamenting over every other scene. So maudlin is the musical choice on offer you wonder why nobody told Crowe to wait until he'd got out of his 'sweatpants' phase. The director's musical prowess slips further still when he decrees 'Hoppipolla' by Sigur Ros worthy of soundtracking the lead character's rebirth. Even back in 2005 that choice would seem obvious and trite. Considering Jonsi himself is on the payroll (contributing an unmemorable score) the decision is unapologetically lazy.
But that's always been Cameron. Unapologetic on all counts, including this time, with an underwritten romance. Things would be amiss if the writer of the immortal “You had me at hello” didn't find the time for new passion to coincide with the new beginning, but a rain soaked confession of love, from an unlikely and frankly unearned source – courtesy of Johansson and Damon's relationship set to mute - just exacerbates the poor form. The cruel amongst you may contemplate whether the romance shift is because Damon seems to have swelled since he ceased “running flat out for half a mile at high altitudes”, really it's because this love letter is all for the departed. If Crowe can't move on yet, nor can Benjamin.
This lack of real romance and the fact that the film is pitched firmly at the family entertainment market means We Bought A Zoo doesn't really reach a single audience member. There aren't enough 'animal antics' to keep the kids diverted and the adults will want for lack of comedy, drama or naked flesh. When coated in whimsy, it feels and sounds like Crowe, when it aims for stakes or tension it misses by the size of an elephant.
Regardless of the flaws, it's still a 'film by Cameron Crowe' that'll tug the heart of the faithful, especially any and all Elizabethtown apologists. In the eyes of the fans the man could film monkeys flinging faeces at each other for the duration while Yusef Islam warbles on and still provoke a tear or two. All others can take comfort in the fact that it's not Kevin James trying to bum a zebra for an hour and a half.
We Bought a Snooze? Not quite. While the cynical reviewers might ponder why it couldn't have been a farm instead, Cameron Crowe's latest is a tolerable chapter in the personal life of its director. But those looking for a tearjerker about the loss of a family member should try In America instead. If you only see one life-affirming, zoo-centric, melodrama this year you're probably better waiting for Ang Lee's forthcoming Life of Pi. If you have room for two, there's not much harm in checking out We Bought A Zoo.