There seems to be a competition this year between George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon as to who can play a single father struggling with his children the best. And while Clooney’s may be the best, and Pitt’s the highest profile, the most accessible version is Damon’s in We Bought a Zoo.
Based on the memoirs of Benjamin Mee (Damon), who left his job and everything behind to buy Dartmoor Zoological Park, the film follows his decision after the passing of his wife (Stephanie Szostak). Raising his two children is a bit of a task with his wife gone; his precocious daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) still has innocence that his son (Colin Ford) lost with the passing of his mother. She’s delighted with nearly everything he does and his son’s problems with authority manifest themselves via school expulsion. Opting to take everything he has and buy a zoo, something the writer has no experience in, a mid-life crisis turns into a family building moment for the man and the wacky crew of people and animals he inherits.
After Elizabethtown opened and was the first critically bashed film of an otherwise stellar career, Crowe seemed to be at a bit of a career crossroads. Crowe doesn’t produce films with frequency but when he does make a film it’s about capturing a particular moment of life. Almost Famous was about capturing the moment in a young person’s life when they realize that their heroes aren’t what they appear to be. Say Anything focused on that one singular moment of love. Jerry Maguire was about capturing that moment you have as an adult when you reach a breaking point. Vanilla Sky was a reflection of a shallow life and the moment you look for meaning. Elizabethtown was about trying to reconnect with your father and dealing with failure.
It’s an underlying theme in his cinematic work; he’s one of the best at capturing a particular moment in life and reflecting upon it. We Bought A Zoo is about trying to come to grips with loss and that’s the film’s underlying point. Benjamin hasn’t focused on his wife’s death because of his two children. Everything he does he does it for them and the film focuses on his grief as he tries to bury it in them. Crowe views his story as one of grief being avoided; the film focuses on Benjamin as he throws himself into this excursion, blowing through his inheritance for what many consider a pipe dream.
It’s an interesting film but Crowe just can’t quite turn the film over into something majestic from merely good. This is Benjamin’s story yet he takes time to focus on other aspects of it as a family tale but without fully exploring it. In particular the romance of his son and a local girl (Elle Fanning) feels tacked on if only because it’s not as developed as the rest of the story. It has a terrific moment in the end between father and son but the moment doesn’t have an emotional punch without the development.
We Bought a Zoo is perhaps the best family film of the season but not quite a masterpiece.
Director: Cameron Crowe Notable Cast: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Elle Fanning, Colin Ford, Angus Macfayden, Patrick Fugit, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Thomas Haden Church Writer(s): Cameron Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna, based on Benjamin Mee’s memoir “We Bought a Zoo”