Based on a true story, the movie stars Matt Damon (Contagion) as Benjamin Mee, a widower of six months and father of two who, sick of pity, unreasonably quits his newspaper reporter job on the spur of the moment, only to more unreasonably purchase a home in the country with a built-in, rundown zoo — this, despite having no experience with animals. It does, however, allow Benjamin’s 7-year-old daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Footloose) to exclaim the title with a cloying cuteness that may cause nausea.
Will this rash decision result in Ben being able to remodel the zoo in record time? Will it pass inspection at the 25th hour? Will his kids grow to love their new surroundings? Will he find love again with the head zookeeper (a miscast Scarlett Johansson, Iron Man 2)? Will Crowe bust out some his ’70s favorites on the soundtrack?
You know the answers to all are “yes,” and the rote path might not be such an uncomfortable journey if the film weren’t a needlessly elongated 124 minutes. When you offer no surprises, you tend to wear out your welcome. At one point during an over-reaching argument, Benjamin yells at his son (Colin Ford, Push), “Enough with the drama!”
Once upon a time, I genuinely looked forward to a Crowe film, because he had a deft ear for dialogue and a knack for building tone; see Say Anything … and Jerry Maguire. The rest have been honorable missteps, but 2005’s Elizabethtown proved a unmitigated disaster that felt like a young, indie filmmaker trying to ape Crowe’s work, and badly. Unfortunately, Zoo feels not a step away from that critical and commercial failure, but perhaps standing in place, as if this gifted writer/director were afraid to move.
The insecurity finds him pandering, to a point where even the Blu-ray’s gag real have been edited with the aim to force you to tear up. My waterworks aren’t manipulated easily, and We Bought a Zoo didn’t earn a drop. It’s startling that Crowe’s characters feel less relatable than ever, and ironically, they’re based on real people.
The moral of this Zoo story? It is twofold:
1. Crowe really needs to expand his record collection.
2. The way to conquer grief is to shovel shit.
Plenty exists in this drama; you’ll find it glazed with all the script’s false notes. —Rod Lott
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