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We Bought a Zoo

Even a monkey in a tiny jumpsuit can’t save Cameron Crowe’s latest

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Matt Damon ponders A noble tiger; the tiger ponders GNAWING Matt Damon’s FACE off.

We Bought a Zoo

Directed by Cameron Crowe

Opens Dec. 23

The holiday season brings forth a tidal wave of sweets, a great rolling cascade of sugar that makes even the most ravenous sweet tooth feel guilty. Cinema isn’t spared from the onslaught, to be sure, as we can see from director Cameron Crowe’s latest film. We Bought a Zoo, set for release two days before Christmas, really goes all the way when it comes to walloping you with the sugared spirit of the season.

Recently widowed Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), we discover over the opening credits of the film, is an adventurous writer struggling to deal with the new-found pressures of being a single dad. His children likewise stumble over the unfamiliar terrain. His daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), though only 7, attempts to get by as best she can, slapping together her own lunches for the school week. Her brother Dylan (Colin Ford) lashes out angrily, ultimately getting booted from school. It’s this expulsion that propels Benjamin to look for a new home in a new school district, zipping all over Southern California with his daughter to find just the right place to settle down. Nothing clicks. That is, until they get to the very last property on the real estate agent’s list. It’s perfect, for some reason, despite its ramshackle exterior and remote location. When Benjamin asks the agent why he didn’t mention it sooner, an unseen lion chimes in with a well-timed roar. “It’s a zoo,” the agent explains.

The agent tries to reason with Benjamin and Rosie, telling them that the place has a staff, that it requires a lot of upkeep. But it’s too late for reason. When Rosie wanders further into the property and gives her animal crackers to a flock of peacocks, Benjamin watches her closely. You can see him thinking, It sounds crazy, but a zoo might just be what this family needs. The music swells, he’s got that life-changing look in his eye, and somehow both he and his daughter are beautifully back-lit by rays of amber sunlight. They’re facing each other, though, so it’s not clear how this is physically possible. This is the sort of movie where many of the shots are dramatically sunlight-soaked. Maybe Benjamin Mee’s Earth has several suns.

From there, the family dives head-first into the world of zoo management. Luckily, they’ve got a ragtag crew of animal handlers to guide them along the way. One member of the team is an actual monkey, which gives you a glimpse into the kind of film you’ve gotten yourself into. The staff is led by zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), a strong-willed tiger wrangler who has been using all of her energy just to keep the failing zoo afloat. Johansson’s performance is one of the few highlights of the film; listening to her introduce the Mees and the audience to the animals is fascinating and fun. If only there were more of it.

Damon also rises above it all and plays his part well. He seems to genuinely grieve the loss of his wife, despite the bizarre, vaguely comic performances surrounding him. At certain points, though, the film works against him. For instance, while sitting alone in the kitchen of his shabby new home, he attempts to look through photos of his late wife. The agony is etched into his face as the tears come, and Damon gracefully guides the viewer through his pain. And just as the audience gets into the sad vibe, composer Jónsi (of Sigur Rós) sends ethereal vocals surging through the film. Fuck you, movie. We were just having a moment before you sashayed in here and dumped your schmaltz all over everything. Damon was carrying the scene quite nicely, thank you very much, and then you had to go and oversaturate it with melodramatics. We get it. Sad. Yes. This is but one of many scenes in which Crowe cranks the sap dial way up.

We Bought a Zoo, while it has good intentions, often falls flat in its attempts to be touching or humorous or cool. As a director, Crowe is like the kid you spend three weeks hanging out with in the 10th grade before you realize he’s a dork with a pretty OK record collection and two clever T-shirts. Yes, Say Anything is great, but all the Cat Stevens songs in the world can’t make this latest venture feel less hackneyed.

Of course, if you need to indulge your sentimental heart, this will give you your fix. It’s your classic it’s-so-crazy-it-just-might-work tale, and it’s certainly warm and fuzzy to say the least. Plus, the monkey wears a tiny little jumpsuit at one point, and like some adorable Christmas miracle it almost makes the whole thing seem worthwhile.

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