Monday, December 26, 2011

Lions, Tigers, and Bears: WE BOUGHT A ZOO

Cameron Crowe is the kind of writer-director who can manufacture moments so broad and sentimental, then deploy them with such total earnestness (accompanied with a tasteful mix-tape of a soundtrack) that they work wonders. Remember John Cusack holding the boombox under Ione Skye’s window in Say Anything? Tom Cruise telling Renée Zellweger that she “had him from hello” in Jerry Maguire? A group of rockers and their teenage embedded reporter having an impromptu Elton John sing-along on the tour bus in Almost Famous? These are moments of great magic that could have gone wrong in lesser hands, but when Crowe’s films sing, they really sing. There’s so much heart and humanity coursing through the films that they create comfortable places to settle into. Even when characters are running into problems, there’s a sense of a warm, gentle humanist spirit that will take care of them.

I should have remembered all of that when I went into Crowe’s first film in six years, We Got a Zoo. Instead, I had low expectations. It’s a comedy/drama based on a true story and featuring cute kids and lots of animals. I was worried the film would be too schmaltzy, too gooey sweet, too simple and formulaic. And it is, to a certain extent. But what surprised me was how caught up in it all I found myself. It’s hardly a subtle film, but it’s a comforting one all the same. It’s a movie with heavy material handled with the lightest of touches. It’s such a calm, warm, sunny film that it’s a pleasure to simply bask in it for two hours.

The film is about Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) a new widower with two kids, a young teen son (Colin Ford) and a seven-year-old daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). Crowe makes a film about grief and mourning that isn’t all that concerned with the immediate aftermath of a death. Instead, this is a film that recognizes that life moves on whether you’re ready for it or not. They’re not. They’re still very much grieving, floundering under the demands of day-to-day life. Benjamin has quit his job. The son is moody and misbehaving; for this he has been expelled. The daughter, sweet as she can be, is nonetheless troubled in her own way. Hearing the sounds of a late night party next door she finds her dad and tells him “their happy is too loud.” The Mees need a change of pace.

Out house hunting, the realtor (J.B. Smoove) shows them a nice property that he warns has complications. They fall in love with the house and its vast expanse of fields. The complications? It’s a zoo shut down by state regulators. If there’s no buyer willing to fund and run the zoo, the animals will be sent away in a permanent fashion. Summoning up his courage – and his pocketbook – and against the advice of his brother (Thomas Haden Church), Mr. Mee buys the house and the zoo right along with it. His daughter is thrilled. His son is very much less so. Suddenly, they’re the owners of a lion, tigers, and a bear (and, oh my, zebras, peacocks, snakes, monkeys, and more). The workers that come with the zoo, including the young, passionate zookeeper (Scarlett Johansson), are just glad the place will open back up and the animals will remain under their care.

This is a film about rebuilding a zoo and rebuilding a family. The zoo’s employees become a kind of second family for the Mees as they try to rebuild their lives in a new place without their wife and mother. I would have liked to learn a little more about the actual process of running the zoo, which would have given more screen time to other zoo employees like Patrick Fugit and Angus Macfadyen. But that’s a minor quibble in a film that’s only interested in what owning the zoo means for the characters. It’s sprinkled with lovely little bits of acting and wonderful moments of soft cinematic delight. Its approach to mourning is a small wonder in a moment when a photo comes to life with a full memory or when a simple story can bring back the lost loved one, if only for an instant. Damon and the rather wonderful child actors sell these moments, yes, but they achieve a kind of visual power as well. Without a single proper flashback, the extent of their loss is felt.

As these characters try to move forward – Damon throws himself into the zoo and is a little startled by his hesitant feelings towards Johansson, his son develops a crush on the zoo volunteer next door (Elle Fanning), his daughter falls in love with the animals – there’s naturally some tension to be felt and life lessons to be learned. But what makes this film so satisfying is the way Crowe sets up an interesting situation in which the characters are all likable. (Well, except for the token jerk zoo inspector who exists solely to give the film some small semblance of deadline-based conflict). Little aspects of character work ring so true (I was particularly taken with Johansson’s halting, rushed pronunciation of Mr. Mee’s name, “Ben-jamin,”as she remembers his preference). I genuinely wanted to see things turn out well for each and every one of them. This is essentially a warm, broad, sweet embrace of a movie. I felt myself settling in to enjoy it as if it were cinematic comfort food.

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