Since I saw Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo in late-November on the night of those nationwide sneak-peek public screenings, I haven’t been able to gather enough desire to write a full-length review of the film. Usually, but not always, that lack of desire tends to make my negative-skewing feelings about a movie even clearer — the less I want to write about it, in other words, the more bland it probably is to me, and the less I like it.
That’s especially the case with We Bought a Zoo, a disappointingly flavorless effort from the Oscar-winning writer-director, who has been flying off the rails for nearly a decade now. I’m admittedly not the most front-lining admirer of Crowe’s body of work — I didn’t respond uproariously, for instance, to Almost Famous, which appears to be one of the more universal favorites from the past decade — but he obviously has some unique tools in his bag, which makes the uninspired telling of We Bought a Zoo all the more noticeable.
Crowe probably took this film as a strictly commercial endeavor, something that would appeal comfortably to the masses, earn a nice dime at the box-office, etc., etc. I take no issue with that. What bugs me — and the reason I decided to write this piece — is how forgivable critics have been to this film. It’s sitting at a 62% on Rotten Tomatoes, a 58 on Metacritic, and the overall response from the online crowd appears, from what I’ve read and heard, to be even stronger than that.
I just don’t get it. There is literally nothing interesting about Crowe’s screenplay, which he co-adapted with Aline Brosh McKenna, and his generic, sappy, wring-out-every-emotion-possible direction makes the lazy creaks sting even more. The way he crafts the arc of Elle Fanning’s character is an embarrassment of simplicity. Here’s one of the most astute young actresses on the market being given a character that’s written without an ounce of legitimacy. It made me cringe more than Armie Hammer’s J. Edgar makeup.
The only reason I didn’t walk out on this thing was Matt Damon, who keeps getting warmer and more inviting with each performance he gives. There are, obviously, exceptions — I’m not sure anyone would describe his dazzling turn in The Informant! as warm — but in movies like this one, Contagion, Hereafter, and The Adjustment Bureau, he continues to develop an exceptional sense of authenticity. Few big-time actors out there open the door to their souls like Damon has been doing recently, and as A-B-C as his We Bought a Zoo character is, he makes the film leagues more watchable than it should be.
The film has another savior in Jónsi, whose original score deserves material of more meaning. Thomas Haden Church is also worth mentioning here — his dry comic contribution is an extremely necessary refresher.
All in all, though, this is immensely forgettable fare that has somehow, someway been greeted favorably but a large body of critical sources. Where other people have found emotional honesty, I found artificial sincerity and creative carelessness. And it cost $50 million? You have to be kidding me. Here’s hoping this was a mainstream stepping stone for Crowe, and not another indication that he’s run out of steam.