Really, when are folks the most maudlin if not during the holiday season? When they're most likely to forgive one's abundance of sentimentality? WE BOUGHT A ZOO utilizes savvy product placement by coinciding its box office release with the month of December. Not that it mattered to me one bit when this film would've come out. Me, I'm a sucker for the sentimental stuff. The movie's title doesn't lie; you get the gist of the premise. Here's Cameron Crowe again, manipulating your emotions, coaxing a laugh, making you tear up. He's such a user.
It's based on a true story. Matt Damon, one of my favorite actors, plays journalist Benjamin Mee who nurses an adventurous streak. He has interviewed dangerous underworld figures in third world nations. He has flown into Category 4 storms. Benjamin profoundly believes that 20 seconds of insane courage can only alter your life for the better. But how much insane courage can one muster when the love of your life leaves you?
Benjamin Mee can't stand pity, even pity assignments at work. Six months after his wife's passing, Benjamin quits his career and - when a neighbor's party causes his seven-year-old girl Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) to remark: "Their happy's too loud." - he uproots the fam. Seeking a new residence, he and Rosie stumble upon what looks to be the ideal home in the country, even if it's nine miles from a Target store or pretty much from any other store. Except that a broken-down zoo is attached to the house. Buy one, buy the other. Benjamin Mee has always strived to give his kids an "authentic American experience," but his bump of common sense is interfering here. Ultimately, it's little Rosie's unbounded joy at the thought of having a zoo that decides things. Benjamin's cautious accountant brother (Thomas Haden Church) is pretty much aghast.
WE BOUGHT A ZOO isn't as incisive or emotionally searing as THE DESCENDANTS, a similar picture dealing with a family's grief. WE BOUGHT A ZOO, to be frank, won't be nominated for as many awards as THE DESCENDANTS will. Except that I like this movie better. Sue me for prefering clear-cut happy endings. While Clooney's dramedy tends to cut too close to home and no one in WE BOUGHT A ZOO comes close to Shailene Woodley's fierce performance, Matt Damon and the rest of the cast guide you to more familiar territory. Their story has a warmth and an undeniable sweetness to it, brought about in huge part by the actors but also by Crowe's knack for heartstring tugging. And, of course, the zoo animals.
Benjamin Mee has his work cut out for him. The Rosemoor Wildlife Park has been dead in the water for the past two years, and just how strongly does he want to commit to operating a zoo, let alone resurrecting it to specs? The dreaded inspection is fast approaching. His idiosyncratic new employees - including the gorgeous zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson) - are casting dubious eyes at him. Benjamin's troubled teen son, Dylan, hates the place, hates everything, really. He keeps on drawing those disturbing images. Benjamin and Dylan just can't seem to connect.
I admit that I choked up in places (damn you, Cameron Crowe!). Yes, this is a sappy film, and some bits feel contrived, but the cast, I feel, ultimately rises above it all. Matt Damon is a sturdy lead and he grounds the story, and I do like that spark between him and Scarlett Johannson. Elle Fanning, who is growing up fast, has a glow about her, sweetly playing the zookeeper's younger sister, Lily, who approaches the tormented artist Dylan with open acceptance. And while there's a chance that Crowe may have overplayed his hand by making Rosie's input so invaluable in a key sequence - it's pretty hard to believe that a seven-year-old could be so canny - there's no arguing that Maggie Elizabeth Jones is just about the cutest thing on earth (sorry, tap-dancing penguins). So, I dunno, sir. WE BOUGHT A ZOO may not come across as emotionally blunt or "truthful" as THE DESCENDANTS. But this is Christmastime wherein edges are softened. There's no place here for blunt truths.