I have a special spot in my heart for Cameron Crowe. Over the years, he’s taught me how to be one of many messy teens (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), woo someone with a stereo (Say Anything), be a directionless twenty-something (Singles), question your job and its purpose (Jerry Maguire), all while belting every word to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” (Almost Famous). Simply put: Cameron Crowe teaches me how to live, basically.
With his latest, family comedy-drama We Bought a Zoo, Crowe teaches audiences how to, um, buy unwanted zoos? It had me awkwardly scratching my head too, seeing the writer/director’s name attached to its trailer, but now having seen it, I can say it’s everything the simple premise suggests: a formulaic heartwarming movie transparently packaged for the holidays. Except that’s not the “problem” here. It’s that I’m not embarrassed to admit I liked nearly every single scene in it.
Based on a true story, writer Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), decides to start a new life for his troubled teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford) and seven year old daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) following the recent death of their mom. He quits his job, goes against the misgivings of his older brother (Thomas Haden Church) and moves to the countryside to repair a decrepit zoo. With a band of outsiders-like staff led by zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), the Mee family race to renovate, and reconnect, with a disagreeable zoo inspector (John Michael Higgins) and dwindling funds looming. They bought the zoo, but will it open?
Under Crowe’s tender direction, he guides Zoo from being dominated by fish-out-of-water slapstick and overly personified animal moments, the easiest of routes considering its Dora the Explorer territory. Instead he deliberately sticks to themes closer to his curiosity–starting over, the broad definition of family, underdogs, young love, taking risks to find yourself–with some close ups of animals in between. Don’t be too crestfallen by the lack of human/animal interaction. As one character says, “I like the animals, but I love the humans.”
Sure, there are moments that border on over-sentimentality–welcome to a PG-rated movie starring zebras, tigers and a fatherly Matt Damon! Yet, somehow, there are little scenes–snippets of dialogue, really–that redeem the movie. In an uncomplicated moment when Benjamin’s son confesses to him, “It’s like you embarrass yourself if you say something, and you embarrass yourself if you don’t,” I’m reminded why I’ve always admired Cameron Crowe’s work. His constant mix of blind earnestness, sincerity and self-awareness, all in search of something small, honest and human is something I find really hard to hate. Crowe, who wrote his first film at 25 and now this at 55, is never afraid to embarrass himself.
For kids and adults alike, this recent release is a welcome 2012 push to remember it’s never too late to follow what feels right, to say something, say anything.