Friday, December 23, 2011

A Waste Of A Good Monkey: We Bought a Zoo

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

"We Bought a Zoo," the new film from writer and director Cameron Crowe, is about a newly-widowed father who decides to take his two children into space on a rocket ship to Mars.

Just kidding! It's about a family that buys a zoo. They really buy a zoo. And thus this movie falls into that genre of films wherein all you really need to know about it is right there in the title. Much like "Hotel For Dogs," you know what you're getting into.

Except in this case, you kind of don't. Yes, the story centers on Benjamin Mee, (Matt Damon), a journalist whose wife has recently died, leaving him alone to father his two kids, seven-year-old Rosie, (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), and troubled 14-year-old Dylan, (Colin Ford). Not feeling inspired in his job at a local paper, (no, this doesn't take place in the 70's), he up and quits, and decides to make a fresh start somewhere new, away from noisy neighbors and uninspiring schools.

So, of course when a private zoo somewhere outside of L.A. presents itself, complete with animals, a quaint house, and a staff of quirky characters, Ben jumps at the opportunity, much to the chagrin of his more practical brother, and accountant, Duncan (Thomas Haden Church).

You would think that the introduction of the "zoo" aspect to the movie would result in lots of comedic scenes with kooky animals, and heartwarming moments of bonding with beasts. You would think that. And yet, the animals here are, for the most part, nothing more than background scenery.

On the one had, I kind of appreciate Crowe not taking the easy route by resorting to animal movie cliches. But on the other hand, there is a monkey in this movie, and all it really does is sit on Patrick Fugit's shoulder. That's it. That's a waste of a good monkey!

And that kind of sums up the whole movie. There are good actors in here, but it just feels like a waste of talent. Aside from Damon and Church, Scarlett Johansson is also on hand as the head zoo keeper, and Elle Fanning is her younger cousin, Lily, who runs the zoo restaurant, and develops a complicated but sweet relationship with Dylan. John Michael Higgins is the requisite villain, a government inspector who will either grant the zoo permission to open, or shut them down if they aren't up to code by the beginning of summer.

I've been a huge fan of Crowe's, ever since I read his book "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" when I was in junior high. "Say Anything" created a perfect character in Lloyd Dobler, and "Singles," which I saw when I was the same age as the characters in the movie--and going through a similar phase of flannel clothing and romantic heartbreak--just sealed it: I loved his movies. And yes, I include "Vanilla Sky" in that love.

"Elizabethtown," not so much.

It was with that movie that he seemed to lose his touch. Where in previous films, quirkiness was not a replacement for real character development, in that one, quirk was all there was, and it felt hollow.

At one time, Crowe could be incredibly sincere and sappy, and yet, it worked. (Mock the "You had me at hello" line all you want, but dammit, it killed in Jerry Maguire.) But in "We Bought a Zoo" the emotion feels uncomfortable and mawkish. He holds the camera on his actors for too long during scenes of high drama, giving one the urge to look away until the awkward moment passes. And all the heart-to-heart dialogue, (and there is a lot of it), just doesn't feel genuine. In scene after scene, none of it works.

But I will give him this: He still has a knack for child casting. That kid in "Jerry Maguire" was cute, but he's nothing compared to Maggie Elizabeth Jones, who plays young Rosie here. I have to say she is, without a doubt, the cutest damn kid I've seen in a movie in years, and a natural actress to boot. Pair that girl up with the monkey, and you've got yourself a hit.

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