The $64 Tomato is a book about a man with no gardening experience who suddenly found himself consumed by the task of creating and maintaining the perfect garden. Cameron Crowe’s newest feature film is sort of like that but more Hollywood-ized and instead of a garden it’s a zoo and a lot more expensive – The $84,000 Zoo.
There are those who might wonder what drew Crowe to material that seems very much out of his wheelhouse. But was it not Jerry Maguire who lost his job, lost all his clients but one, lost his girlfriend, and was eventually aided in his turn-around by a comely young woman? And was it not Drew Baylor of Elizabethtown who lost his job, lost his girlfriend, lost his dad, and was eventually aided in his turn-around by a comely young woman? Now here comes Matt Damon’s Benjamin Mee (a real life person) who at the start of We Bought A Zoo loses his wife, quits his job, learns his son has been expelled from school, and eventually is aided in his turn-around by a comely young woman. Pattern, anyone?
With his life on the rocks, Benjamin decides he and his daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and son (Colin Ford) need a fresh start in the form of a new home in a new place in southern California. They go looking with a real estate agent (J.B. Smoove) who early on signals one of the film’s many problems – he’s meant to be funny but instead is not so much unfunny as he is definitively boring and odd. He shows them a messy old house that doubles as, ahem, a zoo. Yes. A zoo.
It’s down on its luck and on the verge of being closed, unless, of course, someone chooses to pony up the cash and try and make it work. Where most people would see lions, tigers, bears, and exotic snakes (I confess in the face of my intense fear of those disgusting creatures which have no business living amongst us that I watched the inevitable Snakes On The Loose Scene with my eyes closed which means I can’t relay the quality of the actors’ reptile-wrangling), oh my!, Benjamin sees OPPORTUNITY! He buys. The family moves in. They meet the zoo crew which is meant to be motley but instead comes across oddly spiritless, stand-ins for the character actors Cameron Crowe originally wanted.
They are led by Kelly Foster who is played by Scarlett Johansson, an actress who I would have pictured as a zookeeper as much as I would have pictured Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist. But ScarJo’s got a little bit of pep in her step here and really, truly looks at Benjamin with a mixture of confusion of pride. She, of course, doubles as the comely young woman who will eventually aid Benjamin in his turn-around but give her credit for going to great lengths to mask that obviousness. And Damon, bless his heart, is even better. Really, this once again underscores the versatility of his talent. Amidst a wildlife park of mostly rank sentimentality, he truly conveys someone learning on the job, both as a single dad and as the owner of a zoo. (Wait, did I really just write that sentence?)
All the usual “obstacles” are in place. They are forced to spiffy up the rundown place to meet the inflated demands of a zoo inspector (John Michael Higgins) who seems to have driven in from a bad Will Ferrell comedy. A bear briefly escapes which is something that really did drive in from a bad Will Ferrell comedy. A tiger named Spar gets sick and so they all are forced to come to terms with the fact he must be put out of his misery. This, of course, is meant as an illuminating parallel to the unfortunate passing of Benjamin’s wife but is undone not necessarily by its obviousness (which could be written off with a little filmmaking acumen) but by the pitifully clumsy way in which Crowe draws the parallel.
Once upon a time Cameron Crowe was a writer and director concerned first and foremost with character and from his characters came his stories. Let’s be honest, he has never been the most thematically subtle filmmaker. I absolutely love Jerry Maguire but he absolutely paints the juxtaposition between the Good Marriage and the Bad Marriage and Rod Tidwell’s Loyalty away from the football field and Disloyalty on the football field with extreme blatancy. But that was all right, and it was all right because he created layered characters and gave them colorful dialogue and placed them into situations with comedic and/or loving tension.
Even Elizabethtown, which the majority of mankind loathed, was, to quote Nathan Rabin who tore into it unrelentingly for the AV Club in his Year of Flops, “a heartfelt debacle of rare ambition, sincerity and vision.” But We Bought Zoo has no ambition or vision whatsoever and seems strangely lacking in heart and sincerity. It would be wrong to call this muddled pile of holiday release jello a debacle because it’s so indifferent.
There are a couple times when Damon and Johansson go face to face away from all the other lackluster characters and all the animals that may as well be matte paintings in the background and there’s something resembling a sparkle. Alas, these don’t seem to catch Crowe’s fancy. Near the end Kelly’s niece (Elle Fanning who is given virtually nothing to do except smile) wonders of her aunt, “Who do you prefer, the people or the animals?” Her aunt, as she must, answers the people. But the film’s maker didn’t take the hint. Forget the animals, Cameron. Stick to the people.