Monday, 26 March 2012

'We Bought A Zoo' review:

Only in the perpetually sunny, 70s "Album-Oriented Rock" infused world of Cameron Crowe - where momentary lapses in confidence are on par with cancer - does a man respond to unemployment and the loss of a loved one with the impulse purchase of a large zoo. Though Matt Damon stars as Benjamin Mee, the real-life figure upon whose memoir the film is apparently based, there can be little doubt that an audience is being invited into Crowe's world rather than the one we see out the window; A world as always built around grand gestures, cute motivational turns of phrase, and populated by uniformly winsome, oddball characters.

Earnestly sentimental and overflowing with whimsy, Crowe's films are easy to dismiss, though such an act can feel as mean spirited as heckling a eulogy, or writing graffiti on a Mr. Men book. His films are intended as celebrations of life and the innate goodness of the human spirit and, when they hit the spot, their sweet nature can overpower all but the most reactionary cynicism. For instance the deeply personal 'Almost Famous', another loose autobiography (this time of Crowe's youth as a music journalist), is one of the defining films of the last two decades. Yet when they fail, his films leave themselves so open to assault, with the writer/director's heart so plainly on his sleeve, that criticism feels like a form of bullying. As with the much-derided 'Elizabethtown'.

With its saccharine zoo-buying premise, it's no surprise that 'We Bought A Zoo' does not reach the dramatic heights of 'Almost Famous' or 'Jerry Maguire', the formal ambition of the badly received 'Vanilla Sky' remake, nor the zeitgeist appeal of 'Singles'. In tone and spirit it feels like the inbred cousin of 'Elizabethtown' and proof-positive that the filmmaker has leaped into self-parody, becoming sappier and more bombastic than ever. 'We Bought A Zoo' is far more damaging an anti-Crowe missile than any of his most ardent critics could ever have hoped to launch. It's a film in which an aggressively adorable girl complains that she can't sleep because next door's "happy is too loud".

It's a film in which Thomas Haden Church (ever an uncomfortable marriage between the body of Hercules and the demeanor of a terminally ill family pet) can throw his arms into the air and, apropos of nothing, say "joy" without it seemingly either ironic or incongruous. It's a film in which Damon's financial recklessness is enabled by his late wife's secret leaving of $84, 000 "circus money", in apparent anticipation that he would do something this grand and stupid (and who can't identify with that in a time of recession?). It's a film in which someone genuinely utters the line "I like the animals... but I love the people", and in which the musical choices are so painfully on the nose that a downpour is accompanied by Bob Dylan's "Buckets of Rain". Pathetic fallacy indeed.

In this world a teenage boys "dark" artwork (charcoal etchings of decapitated bodies and the like) is seen as evidence of a cry for help - a glimpse at how superficially gloomy you have to get before Crowe would sit you down for a pep talk, and preach about the life-changing impact of "twenty seconds of insane courage", like a man who is part director, part music critic and part walking self-help cack fountain. And if 'Elizabethtown' copied the plot of 'Jerry Maguire' almost wholesale (allowing for a shift from athlete management to high-end sports shoe design), 'We Bought A Zoo' effectively imports whole lines from that previous movie, with Scarlett Johansson breathlessly complaining about how her life as head zookeeper means she doesn't get to go out with her friends and meet guys. Likewise, Damon reenacts the scene in which a near-defeated Tom Cruise confronts and wins over his doubters.

I haven't even mentioned that Damon's character refers to his spur of the moment zoo acquisition as being part of a plan to give his children "an authentic American experience"... whatever that means (an image of George Washington running an owl sanctuary springs immediately to mind). Of course, this tendency towards emotional tourettes and romanticised public meltdowns hasn't been an automatic black mark against previous Cameron Crowe movies, and perhaps wouldn't be here if the film ever ventured beyond trite ideas of "letting go" and "moving on", as Damon attempts to reconcile the loss of his sadly departed wife. The tale of a middle-aged man struggling to relate to his eldest child in the wake of losing his partner, 'We Bought A Zoo' is basically what 'The Descendants' would have been if George Clooney, with smiling insanity, resolved his problems by relocating his family to a theme park.

'We Bought A Zoo' is out now in the UK, rated 'PG' by the BBFC.

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