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What’s That Smell? ‘We Bought a Zoo’!

November 27, 2011

When did Cameron Crowe turn into such a sap? Back in the late ’90s/early ’00s, he seemed poised to become a major writer/director, with the smart, quotable comedy-dramas Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous. Hell, the guy had us at hello with his promising debut, 1989’s seminal teen rom-com Say Anything… But now Crowe doesn’t have anything to say.

With Almost Famous—the autobiographical account of how a teenager became a writer for Rolling Stone—Crowe followed the aphorism “write what you know.” Maybe he’s run out of stuff he knows. How else do you explain the bland-on-bland debacles of Vanilla Sky and Elizabethtown? (Okay, you can partially blame the latter’s failure on the tragic casting of Orlando Bloom in a non-pirate-speaking role.)

And now: We Bought a Zoo. It’s not just the year’s worst title—repeated no less than three times during the film’s brutal, 124-minute running time—but one of the year’s worst movies. Matt Damon (on auto-pilot) stars as Benjamin Mee, a widowed dad who quits his job as a globe-trotting, death-defying journalist and…yep, buys a zoo.

Here’s the nicest thing I can say about We Bought a Zoo: At least the animals don’t talk. Unfortunately, the humans do. They talk and talk and talk. Damon talks so much with his stereotypically surly teenage son (Colin Ford) and sickeningly cutesy daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) about his late wife that they could’ve called this movie How I Met Your Dead Mother. Hey, it’s a better title than We Bought a Zoo.

Then again, the endless grieving process mercifully delays any possible romance between Damon and Scarlett Johansson, as the least likely zookeeper since, well, Rosario Dawson in Zookeeper. ScarJo’s somnambulent performance seems positively peppy compared to Elle Fanning, who’s even more zombie-like as a 13-year-old love interest for Damon’s son than in the inaccurately titled Super 8.

Almost famous: Fugit and Fanning

Thomas Haden Church and JB Smoove bring their typically entertaining intonations as Damon’s skeptical-accountant brother and a rookie real-estate agent, respectively. But the rest of the cast—including never-famous Almost Famous star Patrick Fugit—can’t breathe life into their lines.

Crowe throws in a couple weak attempts at show-me-the-money style catchphrases (e.g., “your happy is too loud”), but the script doesn’t have his voice. Perhaps that’s because it was cowritten by Aline Brosh McKenna, who must’ve struck a deal with Satan to pen her witty adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada, because everything else she’s done has been hellish (I Don’t Know How She Does It, 27 Dresses, etc.).

If you miss the opening credits, the only way you’d know this is a Cameron Crowe film is by the soundtrack. But the classic-rock cuts from the likes of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Pearl Jam only make you realize how much more effectively Crowe used music from the same bands in Jerry Maguire and Singles.

Full disclosure: I saw We Bought a Zoo with my 15-year-old son, my 10-year-old daughter and two of her best friends, and they all enjoyed it much more than I did. So did the drunk couple sitting behind us, who alternately made out and wept aloud. Maybe if I’d had a few drinks before the movie, I would’ve wept for the right reasons.

Will you buy a ticket to We Bought a Zoo? Quit monkeying around and post a comment!

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7 Comments
  1. Maybe Cameron was offered this and said “Show Me The Money”…

  2. Cherie Cincilla permalink

    That trailer alone made me angry….

  3. It’s one of those films you think *must* have something going on beyond the obvious, which is so obvious it makes you flinch, but apparently there isn’t any there there.

  4. Definitely think the title doesn’t work, but I’m planning to see it. I’m a fan of a lot of Crowe’s work (I even liked parts of Vanilla Sky and Elizabethtown!) and I love Matt Damon. But the plot seems weird and over 2 hours sounds very typical of Crowe, who seems to write too long of scripts.

  5. Steve Megremis permalink

    No way I will see this film. I also liked ‘Say Anything’ and ‘Almost Famous’ but the odor of ‘useless feel-good’ attached to this one is too much for me to take. And the marketing hype surrounding this film is astonishing. I’ve seen Damon and Johansson pumping this piece everywhere, even, shockingly, on Charlie Rose. The studio must have a lot invested in this particular project.

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