I don’t give Cameron Crowe much thought. But perhaps I should. I don’t say this because he is good; I don’t believe that. But he is unusual. His films are much like novels in their loose plot structures and focus on character. And through a seeming act of will, I find that his films always just make it over the “acceptable” bar. But not by much.
Last night, I watched Crowe’s newest film, We Bought a Zoo. Many people have long ago written me off as a pretentious twat who of course would not like a film like this. These people are mistaken. We Bought a Zoo is exactly the kind of film that I enjoy. Yes, I like film as art. Yes, I like serious subjects. Yes, I like specialized film technique that is not meant to be consciously noticed by the viewer. But I also like pure entertainment.
Anyway, there were other reasons that I wanted to see this film in the theater. First, there are certain actors who I just like. George Clooney is one; I think he is the modern day Cary Grant. And Matt Damon is another. So a family-ish film starring him seemed like an enjoyable bet. Also: zoo! I like zoos, and I’m a big fan of the way underrated Fierce Creatures. And most of all, I didn’t know that Cameron Crowe had directed it.
When the film started, it said, “A Cameron Crowe Film.” Danger, Will Robinson! That did not mean the film would be bad, of course. I’ve enjoyed all of the Crowe films at least a little. And the director’s cut of Almost Famous is quite good. (The released version is more typical of Crowe’s work.) But it did make me skeptical.
We Bought a Zoo is good enough. It has the charm that Crowe is known for, including the casting of a little girl who is even more adorable than Ray Boyd in Jerry Maguire. But it also has all the problems typical of Crowe. The biggest problem is that the film is not particularly interested in the plot, “Will we get the zoo open on time?!” And: “Will the little boy move past his darkness and into the light?!” And: “Will Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson ever kiss?!” These and many other subplots are tacked onto the core of the film: “Look, we bought a zoo!”
From the viewer’s standpoint, the biggest problem with all of this is a lack of dramatic momentum. One of the subplots is particularly vexing: the budding romance between the pubescent girl and boy. It disappears for the whole of the third act and then is suddenly resolved. And much the same can be said of the film in general. It isn’t so much “a beginning, muddle, and ending” as just a muddle.
None of this matters to me. I’m perfectly happy hanging out with Matt, Scarlett, Rosie (the cute little girl), and MacCready for an hour and a half. But I mind having obvious plot devices thrust at me as I’m enjoying just hanging out. And that gets right at the heart of what’s wrong with Crowe: he makes nice, marginally enjoyable films when he could make something really good.
I’m divided about what is wrong with Crowe’s work. Almost Famous indicates that perhaps he does make films that work, but they are too long for Hollywood and thus must be destroyed. Or it could just be that he makes all the compromises to commerce that are evident in all his released films. Regardless, if he decided to go the John Sayles route and make low budget films, he could do what he clearly wants to do. Not only would that make me much happier, he might produce major hits that way.