As human-interest stories go, this one’s a beaut. In Oct. 2006, Benjamin Mee, the English writer of a DIY column, and his wife Katherine, a graphic designer, moved from their home in the South of France into a 12-bedroom home on the grounds of a 30-acre zoo in Dartmoor, 100 miles west of London, and brought their two young children, ages six and four, and Ben’s mother and brother along. (Actually, buying the zoo was Mum’s idea.) Ben had been mulling a book on humor in animals but had no training in the care of lions and jaguars and bears. Another of Ben’s brothers brought a lawsuit against the purchase of the zoo, further depleting the family finances. And Katherine, who had lived with a brain tumor for three years, died a few months after the move. Yet with grit and pluck and a helpful zoo staff, Ben managed to reopen the Dartmoor Wildlife Park in July 2007. The experience begat a four-part BBC2 docu-series, Ben’s Zoo, and a memoir, We Bought a Zoo.
In Old Hollywood, the smart boys would have said, “This is a great story. How can we ruin it?” That sort of vandalism of a real-life inspirational tale happens in new Hollywood too, and Exhibit A is Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo. Borrowing the title and broad contours of the Mee experience, Crowe has made a meretricious weepie that rouges the facts and defeats the attempts of Matt Damon, with his considerable charm and skill, to breathe some emotional truth into it. There’s a word for the strenuous, shameless plucking of an audience’s emotions that this movie traffics in: cornography.
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In Crowe’s version of the Mee family, Katherine (Stephanie Szostak) is dead before anyone thinks of a zoo, and journalist Ben (Damon) is a man bereft. The crockpot dinners given him by solicitous mothers at his kids’ schools don’t help. “I’m sick of sympathy,” he says, wishing he could have one last heart-to-heart with Katherine: “If only I could talk to her about getting over her.” Katherine has departed to that realm where saintly dead movie moms go, hovering in his thoughts, awaiting her cue for a final visitation.
Their brooding 14-year-old Dylan (Colin Ford) has been expelled from school for antisocial behavior and drawing death images in his sketch book. But cheerful Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) is a benison to Ben, and when he plans a move from the familiar surroundings that haunt him, Rosie talks him into buying the zoo property. In this film, a seven-year-old makes all the important decisions, because she’s the only family member not zombified by bereavement. Mom’s dead, so Rosie has to be the mom.
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The zoo comes with 49 species of wild animals, a staff of luridly colorful characters and, for the grieving father and troubled son, ready-made girlfriends. Dream girls, really: Scarlett Johansson and Elle Fanning. Fanning’s precocious Lily is just the tonic to cure Dylan of the mopes; Johansson’s Kelly, a senior staff member, is all-American-gorgeous and conveniently if improbably unattached. We now see why Crowe killed off Katherine early. If the film had been true to her story, viewers could infer that the move to the zoo killed her — because everything in this sort of film happens according to God’s plan, i.e., Hollywood determinism. Her death on zoo property would also have compromised the budding romance between Ben and Kelly. (“Now that your wife’s dead, can we kiss?”)
This weird mashup of The Zookeeper (with Damon instead of Kevin James as the suddenly single guy who talks to the animals) and The Descendants (a man grieving for his wife and taking his two kids on a journey of discovery) might seem an odd detour for Crowe, who in his early 20s wrote the Rolling Stone article that became the 1982 teen comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He graduated to writer-director and made three good movies: Say Anything…, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous. That last film came out more than a decade ago, yet such was our pleasure in it and its siblings that we’re still in mourning for the late talent of Cameron Crowe. How could we have known that his last film, Elizabethtown, about a depressed man coping with a family death, was not an arrant misfire but the launching of Crowe’s soupy-sappy period?
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Perhaps figuring he couldn’t handle all of the story’s romantic clichés on his own, and needing an abettor in the Mee degeneration, Crowe teamed with screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna, whose résumé includes such gynocentric rom-com slop as Three to Tango, 27 Dresses, I Don’t Know How She Does It and Morning Glory (with the minor mitigating credit of The Devil Wears Prada). Maybe McKenna came up with the ending, which makes It’s a Wonderful Life seem misanthropic by comparison.
As director, Crowe pushes every scene to the sentimental max. The actors are photographed in gigantic closeups only a myopic dermatologist could love and bathed in dappled sunlight — the money shot for gooey romances. And viewer, don’t bother trying to intuit a character’ emotions; let the reaction shots tell you what to feel. Not that it’s hard to read the film’s supporting characters: they are what they seem at first glance: crabby but supporting brother (Thomas Haden Church), Dylan’s pruney school principal (Michael Panes) and the zoo inspector whose persnickety pomposity is beyond even the skills of John Michael Higgins to make either amusing or plausible. A glowy score by Jonsi (singer for the Icelandic rock band Sigur Ros) executes another needless Heimlich to your heartstrings, with the occasional infusion of a Crowe staple, golden oldies (here by Bob Dylan, Randy Newman and Cat Stevens, among others).
The failure of almost everything around Damon makes his achievement here all the more impressive. He gracefully humanizes the cartoon of grief the writers have made of Ben and, with apparent belief in the character, effortlessly sells it to the audience. Somehow the actor scales this Everest of sludge without getting muddy. Like Brad Pitt in Moneyball, Damon here exerts pure star quality. Sure, Ben’s wife died, his son’s a mess and the bear just escaped into the forest. But who wouldn’t want to know this Ben, or to be him?
Even the real Benjamin Mee might say yes to that proposition. Because Damon’s maxi-Mee is as far from the real thing as a Hollywood lie is from the more complex and inspiring truth.