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We Bought a Zoo

We Bought a Zoo

Ugh, better title would be "We Are Trapped in a Terrible Movie, Please Send Help"

dir: Cameron Crowe

There’s this feeling that certain films and certain directors provoke that’s akin to having been in an embarrassing relationship with someone completely unsuitable in some dark alleyway of your past. Sure, at the time you thought they were wonderful and fun, but then you look back with the benefit of maturity and hindsight and think “what the fuck was I on?”

And it happens, mostly, when you see them in their current state, giving the world new examples of why they were always embarrassing, and why you should have known they were a disaster way back when. Sure, I really enjoyed Almost Famous, and sit through it whenever it pops up on one of the cable movie channels, but, really, I can’t believe I ever liked this man’s movies.

We Bought a Zoo actually has a story that I found interesting. A grieving widower called Benjamin (Matt Damon) decides to buy a zoo, to take his two kids out of the city and all that reminds him of his departed wife, to start afresh. Along the way he has to say a lot of things that would embarrass even those kinds of people you know who biologically seem not to have any capacity for shame. You know, politicians, pornstars, footballers: even they would be blushing with some of these execrable words given to them. Instead, you have Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson uttering this dolorous, dunderheaded dribble, which demeans us all individually and as a species.

This, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, interesting-sounding premise is then fed through a sequence of formula and cliché machines so mechanical and calculated in their efficiency that every moment that rolls along is broadcast well in advance and amped up in such a way that you start to hate the people you’re watching, and wish that bad things would happen to them both on and off screen.

Now I know that music is one of the most powerful weapons in a director’s arsenal, but even here no-one is safe from an onslaught that would stagger Wagner himself. And, for the record, I like the music of Sigur Ros, the Icelandic trolls who make ethereal and uplifting music for the masses. I’m one of those masses. But this film made me start to question even that. There were too many scenes where whatever I was feeling wasn’t in tandem with the music, it was solely because of the music, and in spite of whatever I was viewing, violently in spite of it.

There’s not a relationship in the flick that felt real, at all, mostly because Crowe somehow got every person in every scene to overact to the peak of their abilities. Elle Fanning, who was so good in the JJ Abrams’s Spielberg-homage Super 8 last year is reduced to a character who probably wasn’t meant to be developmentally disabled, but sure as hell seemed it.

And by ‘developmentally disabled’, yes, I do mean retarded. It’s not right or fair to say it, but goddamn nothing else, no other word sequence, comes close.

Benjamin’s son Dylan (Colin Ford) is the moody, gloomy son who is such a cliché, who is portrayed in ways so pure in their clicheness that I had difficulty watching him without my eyes watering. He made, in the glorious tradition of shitty teenage actors, all teenagers look bad.

Scarlett Johansson is trying to convince people again that she’s a decent and credible actress, and her way of doing that here as a senior zoo keeper is by speaking really fast and using a man’s voice. And pouting seductively in her sensible and mannish clothing. It’s easy to forget any of the other good work she’s done.

Her scenes with Damon made me gay, or gayer, I swear to all the gods of the transgendered and sexually confused, I’ve never seen two people together as a terrible onscreen pairing that more made me never want to see love interests again. The stuff she has to say to Damon, and that Damon sometimes says back curdled the blood in my veins and the air in my lungs. Those poor people, having to say those things to each other…

There’s no merciful god in this universe, that’s clear, because if there were, such a god could not allow Cameron Crowe to make his excruciating movies anymore. This, like all of his worst ones, is bathed in unearned sentiment, with each scene bursting with people and dialogue that desperately, shamelessly, is just begging us to love it, in such a creepy, stalkerish way.

About the only person who comes out of this okay is the seven-year-old daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), who is cute as a button, and can hold her little head up high. Crowe’s mawkish direction and treacly emotionalism sounds fine coming out of a primary school child, though perhaps not anyone over the age of 13.

Maybe that’s where the missed opportunity lies: Cameron Crowe would have been perfect as the director of those Twilight movies. That would make some kind of sense, because otherwise, nothing makes sense.

There probably were some things about this flick that didn’t turn my stomach completely, but whatever they are, they faded too quickly for me to hang on to. I will still say that I like the core story, but the makers, and let’s mostly blame Crowe for it, balls it up out of fear of audiences not being able to be smart enough to care, or clever enough to understand that grieving for loved ones is hard, and that moving on is even harder.

A lot of us know this already, but we still like seeing cinematic treatments of this type of subject matter (see The Descendants as an example of something that treats the same scenario with emotional complexity, instead of using it like this flick does, like something akin to maple syrup with which you try to drown each and every scene).

So it completely mishandles that. On the other hand, the story about the family members rediscovering their love for each other through working hard in a shared dream is… I dunno, there’s something meaningful there even if it is mishandled or cack-handed or whatever sobriquet you wish to apply. I like, or even ‘like’ the idea of a family trying out something so wacky and zany. It’s not exactly Aguirre: The Wrath of God or Mosquito Coast, about lunatic fathers dooming their families by pursuing an unattainable and psychotic dream, but there’s still some element of that.

It never seems in danger, it never seems like this arbitrary and out-of-nowhere adventure will be anything less than perfectly realised, but, hey, most flicks are like that, hence their predictable and comforting allure.

Maybe I’m an old curmudgeon; maybe I’m just over this kind of super-saccharine formulaic sentimental crap, but I certainly wasn’t in the mood for it the other day, and I recommend it to absolutely no-one. I don’t even think grandmothers would like this pap, and that’s a harsh statement if I ever made one.

Oh, and having people walking around every so often incredulously bellowing the movie’s title “We bought a zoo!” every fifteen minutes was so painfully lame I doubt Cameron Crowe’s family members can look him in the face without wanting to punch him.

2 times I wished the characters - except for the daughter - were eaten by lions out of 10

“Please don't take offense if I don't hit on you.” – please take offence if I throw up on you – We Bought a Zoo