Considering that Cameron Crowe is a filmmaker who has practically grown up along with his films, seeing him pull a hack move and direct the painfully middlebrow We Bought a Zoo isn't that much of a surprise. He's a guy who started out examining the wild side of teens by penning Fast Times at Ridgemont High, then as a writer-director tackled young adulthood in Say Anything... and Singles, before reaching a cathartic, sophisticated point of maturity with Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous. Now, seeing Crowe half-ass it in a film devoid of any edge or personality seems like the kind of thing a guy his age would do. He's 54, divorced, hasn't directed a major film since that misfire Elizabethtown in 2005, and when you get to that point in life, you just want to do something that won't take a lot outta ya.
This flick stars Matt Damon as thrill-seeking journalist-turned-struggling widower Benjamin Mee (who wrote the book the movie is based on). His wife died of complications the movie doesn't get into, leaving behind a sullen, tweenage son (Colin Ford) and a precocious daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) who's surprisingly OK with the present state of things.
Mee quits his job and embarks on that well-worn movie trope: a fresh start. He and his kids move into a rustic home that also comes with a run-down wildlife park. Of course, this park has a staff filled with offbeat archetypes, including Patrick Fugit's sarcastic monkey wrangler, Angus MacFadyen's hard-drinking Scottish zookeeper and Elle Fanning's mini-manic pixie dream girl, who inexplicably becomes drawn to Mee's bratty boy. But sparks immediately fly between Mee and the neurotic head zookeeper, played with a shocking sense of empathy by the usually blank-faced Scarlett Johansson. Together they rebuild the park as Mee rebuilds his family.
We Bought a Zoo certainly wins this year's prize for most mediocre, heartwarming family film to win over audiences this holiday season. For the script, Crowe worked with Aline Brosh McKenna, the writer of many an execrable chick flick. (Quick: Name the worst romantic comedy you've seen. She probably wrote that.) So, as you may expect, this film is a continuous tidal wave of contrived dialogue, weak characters and overwhelming schmaltz. And not even a bunch of hip music cues from Crowe's record stash (as well as a score from Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi) can cover that up.
If anything redeems the film, it's Damon and his disarming earnestness. Between this and his turn in Contagion, somehow Damon has become the go-to guy for sympathetic widowed dads. I don't want to say that elevates the material, but he certainly makes it slightly bearable. Unlike what Crowe does here, Damon shows you can still try to get better even when you get to an age where you usually just give the hell up.