We Bought a Zoo

We Bought a ZooI 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.

Afterword

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.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “We Bought a Zoo

  1. I think my problem with Crowe is the same one I have with a lot of likeable, popular filmmakers (like the Reitman kid and Apatow and James L. Brooks.) They aren’t satisfied with making well-written, well-acted entertainments. No — their movies have to be about Real People with Real Challenges, invariably solved by individuals Following A Dream.

    It’s understandable, as people like this are essentially living a dream, but I find their work cloying and annoying (despite the competence of the moviemakers.) If they made fantasies like Howard Hawks basically did, or light amusements with some sarcastic social commentary thrown in, like Preston Sturges, I’d enjoy them a lot more. (I haven’t seen "Zoo," maybe it fits that description.)

    When it comes to commercial moviemakers addressing real human concerns, I vastly prefer Alexander Payne or Thomas McCarthy. Guys like Crowe simply lack the moral intelligence to be anything more than amusing — and they shouldn’t be ashamed of that, although apparently they are and want to be thought of as Deep.

    Clooney, I think, will not be remembered as this era’s Cary Grant — he’ll be remembered as Clooney, and others in the future (as long as THAT lasts) will be compared to him. He’s really quite an original. Grant is not a bad analogy, though. Both have charm basically oozing from their pores without making it creepy, both aged spectacularly well on-screen, and both took control of their careers and decided to be only in the movies they wanted to be in.

    Grant rarely displayed Clooney’s vulnerability or range, but that’s not what stars did in Grant’s day. Grant was never in a movie like "Micheal Clayton" or "The Descendants" but surely it’s because he never got offered any scripts along those lines. And he out-charms Clooney in "North By Northwest." That’s my favorite of his, I think. (Along the "auteur" lines discussed earlier, Hitchcock had the good sense to let Grant and Mason and Landau do their thing to Ernest Lehmann’s script with Bernard Herrmann’s music; it might be Hitchcock’s best film as well.)

  2. @JMF – I agree with all of that more or less. I think the main thing that differentiates Clooney and Grant is the time. And I’m glad you mentioned [i]Michael Clayton[/i], because I’m a big fan of that movie. I really like Tom Wilkinson, especially when he gets a good role like this one.

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