Tuesday, December 27, 2011

We Bought a Zoo (2011)

We Bought a Zoo (2011)
Dir. Cameron Crowe

2.5 out of 5

Based on the memoir of a British newspaper columnist, We Bought a Zoo is a big-hearted dramedy about a widower (Matt Damon) who, well...it's right there in the title, and I'm not going to repeat it. His hope is that a financially risky whim can rehabilitate his grieving family, particularly troubled son Dylan (Colin Ford) who has been filling sketchbooks with angsty drawings that are a little like what Edvard Munch might have posted on deviantART. Damon must also win over the animal park's skeptical staff - led by zookeeper Scarlett Johansson - to get up and running by the summer tourist season.

Undeterred by the thin premise, director Cameron Crowe manages to stretch the film over two hours by relying heavily on melodramatic contrivances, time-expanding editing, and an unbearably lightweight set of obstacles to Damon's success. In a lazy attempt to build dramatic tension, Crowe and co-writer Aline Brosh McKenna settle for a string of hoary clichés, among them an outrageously strict bureaucrat (a campy John Michael Higgins) and an ill-timed rainstorm. All of this is at least partially redeemed by Damon's surprisingly dignified presence in an otherwise cloying role that requires him to hold a conversation with the ghost of his dead wife (Stephanie Szostak). He fares far better than Thomas Haden Church, on autopilot as Damon's surfer-bro brother who is forced to spout gag-inducing maxims like "I like the animals, but I love the humans."

To be fair, We Bought a Zoo makes a decent effort to address the moral complexities of owning a menagerie of exotic creatures. A subplot involving the declining health of the park's beloved tiger is as close as the film ever gets to evoking a genuine emotional response without relying on heated shouting matches or giggling toddlers. If only the rest of the movie was handled with such delicacy. Crowe is still adept at arranging a warm, inviting background for his experiments with a diverse palette of human emotion: witness solid supporting work from Elle Fanning as Ford's love(ish) interest and a finespun Jónsi score that trembles as much as it thunders. It's just a shame that he's endeavored to paint the rest with the broadest brushes in his arsenal.

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