Sunday, December 25, 2011

We Bought a Zoo (2011)

Posted by Kurt

We Bought a Zoo, the new Cameron Crowe film, is like a deep-tissue massage for my soul.  It is shamelessly heartfelt, with no interest in being edgy or bringing in shocking plot twists.  There are no tricks or nasty villains.  It is just a story about a guy trying to restore his family with a little adventure, and it is dangerously close to perfect.  I've been accused of hating love, happiness, and fun, and I still alternated between happy tears and sad tears for almost two hours.

The story here is courteously simple.  Matt Damon's wife has died about six months before the movie starts, and his family is struggling.  He has lost his passion for his job as a thrill-seeking journalist, his teenage son is wearing oversized dark clothing and drawing ghoulish images in class, and his seven-year-old daughter has to take responsibility for the day-to-day details at home.  Seeking a fresh start, Damon goes house-hunting and ends up (as you may have guessed if you have read the title of the film) buying a zoo.  The zoo's staff includes some familiarly kooky Cameron Crowe secondary characters, and there are some challenges, but if you think that maybe things won't turn out OK at the end, then you probably haven't ever seen a movie before.

I would point out that the plot is.. implausible.. but everything about this film is implausible.  That is Cameron Crowe's gift (well, that and perfect soundtrack selections).  He takes mundane situations (a man getting a fresh start after losing his wife, a son going home after his father's death, a boy leaving home to become the man he is supposed to be) and stretches them a little, like a chef rolling out dough into a pizza crust, so that everything is just a little too exaggerated and the magic can shine through.  When characters in this film stroll along an L.A. sidewalk, the sunlight is always just a little too perfect to be real.  When they hike around the rural zoo, the floating dust catches the light to give everything a golden glow.  The little girl is a little too mature to be so emotionally childlike, the parallels between the dead woman and a dying tiger are a little too clear, the romances among the other characters are just a little too inevitable, and the zoo's opening day is so deep into a magical realism place that absolutely nothing about it is true except for the emotions (which, obviously, means that it is true in every way that matters).  And that's the magic of Cameron Crowe.  

I hope that I have not given the impression that this film is somehow not intelligent.  There are some profound details that reward careful viewing - Matt doesn't remember hearing the son casually mention a gluten intolerance in a chaotic opening scene, but I'm sure I heard it and that it adds a layer to the boy's shy romance with a goofy girl who brings him a sandwich every day that we never see him eat but never see him decline.  Matt Damon's character has a really good line in the middle of the movie, when Scarlett Johansson asks why he bought the zoo, and a scene at the end retroactively adds an emotional depth to the exchange.  The son occasionally wears a necklace that we glimpse briefly in a meaningful flashback.  Plot-wise, this film moves slowly enough that you can take a quick break here and there without getting lost, but Crowe adds so many beautiful little touches that a viewer will appreciate the art more by catching every scene.

Before I finish this review, I should applaud the acting.  Matt Damon has physically transformed himself into a middle-aged guy, kind of thick around the middle and with a careless haircut, and it really frees him up to play the father who the character needs to be.  Elle Fanning takes full advantage of her opportunity to be a weird Cameron Crowe female (following in the lovably awkward footsteps of Kirsten Dunst and Kate Hudson) - I'm not sold on her accent, but I'm delighted by her contagious enthusiasm.  And while I am usually disappointed with the way that Scarlett Johansson sleepwalks through most of her roles (really, if I make the effort to wake up to go to your movie, you should reciprocate by waking up to act in it), she really makes this role work for her.  True, the character is a zookeeper who feels more comfortable around animals than humans, so the emotional range is minimal, but Johansson really does hit all of the sweet and determined and exhausted and insightful notes that are asked of her, and I can't complain at all.  Even the animals play their roles well, from an expressive capuchin to a wise aging tiger to an enormous grizzly bear.  Cameron Crowe has really brought out the best in each of his performers, and the result is a joyful treasure that every family should see.

No comments:

Post a Comment