Matt Damon and friend in Cameron Crowe’s Local Hero-ish, Northern Exposuresque comedy We Bought a Zoo.
We Bought A Zoo is exactly the kind of sentimental nonsense that slips neatly and nimbly around my defenses and stabs me straight through the heart.
I hate when that happens.
But knowing I’m like that, I don’t automatically rule out seeing movies with plots that can be summed up like so:
Widowed young father with two children desperate to start a new life impulsively buys a rundown zoo staffed by quirky but lovable misfits and a gorgeous but no nonsense zoologist who happens to look like Black Widow from The Avengers. The work required and the cost of the upkeep are more than he bargained for and can afford but he realizes that in saving the zoo he might be saving himself and his family from the grief that’s overwhelming them all. Along the way broken hearts are mended and lessons are learned about life, love, and courage. And, oh yeah. Lions and tigers and bears!
Well, a bear.
And maybe just the one lion. That’s left unclear.
But definitely more than one tiger. At least two, maybe three.
The reason we didn’t see We Bought a Zoo when it was in the theaters at Christmas was that we had a lot of holiday stuff going on and there were too many other movies we wanted to see first. Now it’s available on DVD and VOD and so it was last week’s feature for Mannion Family Movie Night. I’m not sorry we didn’t see it on a big screen. It fits perfectly on the TV. In fact, if it didn’t star Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, it could be the pilot for a TV series, like Northern Exposure except with peacocks and lemurs instead of a moose and not as edgy.
Damon plays Benjamin Mee, a star reporter for a newspaper that might very well be the Los Angeles Times. His wife Katherine has been gone for six months and he still misses her terribly, but he seems to be doing ok, holding himself and his family together. His teenage son Dylan's a mess, locked up in his anger at his mother's death and lashing out at life by slacking off on his schoolwork, perverting his considerable talent as an artist---he draws and paints images of decapitated heads and severed limbs. "They're very good," his worried but still proud father can't help boasting.---defying all authority, and, a new twist, starting to steal. Troubling, but we don't get the sense that Benjamin won't be able to cope. This isn't a case, like The Descendants, of a detached and clueless father suddenly having to learn how to be a responsible parent. Benjamin is already a good father. He’s just facing a situation he wasn’t prepared for and that there’s no way he could have prepared for. Still. It'll take time and some experimenting, but we know he'll figure it out. Director Cameron Crowe, who co-wrote the screenplay with Aline Brosh McKenna, doesn’t try to put us in suspense about that. Dylan isn’t Benjamin's main problem.
Neither is his seven year old daughter Rosie who seems to be handling things beautifully. She's sad, of course, but she doesn't expect to stay sad. And she's a very practical little person, as practical as a second grader can be, at any rate. As far as she's concerned, all problems are manageable. All you have to do is...well...manage them.
So Benjamin appears to be doing about as well as can be expected. But there are signs. It's understandable that he's not gotten around to cleaning out his wife's drawers and closets, but not that he hasn't thrown out her unfinished medicine bottles. He's letting the casseroles and other dishes friends and neighbors have prepared for him and the kids stack up in the refrigerator while the family subsists on the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches Rosie makes.
He's relying too much on Rosie, generally, and not just to keep the house running. For company. Dylan is troubled. Rosie's in danger. Benjamin is taking advantage of her helpful and practical good nature, unconsciously pushing her towards taking over for her mother as the family's mainstay, putting her in danger of becoming the good daughter, the child who never causes problems because she never acts on her own wants or desires.
He only leaves the house when he's obligated to or when his brother drags him out and then he refuses to go to most restaurants and coffee shops because they bring back too many memories of his wife. And he's stopped working. He goes to the office but then just sits there. To the bemusement and dismay of his good-hearted editor.
At this LA Times-like paper Benjamin has carved out a career very like the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristoff. He travels across the country and around the world on assignment, flying through hurricanes, interviewing dictators, getting up close and personal with killer bees. Nice work if you can get it, but he was able to get it because his wife was there to handle things on the domestic front. Without her, he's grounded. But his editor still needs him and has plans for him that will allow him to do his job close to home. Benjamin quits.
It turns out that it wasn't just that because of Katherine he was able to do his job. He did it for her.
The Descendants was about a family discovering they're better off without one of its members. I thought it was a serious flaw in that movie that it seemed to be trying to run away from this fact about itself. If we were going to be forced to watch George Clooney cry, we should have at least been allowed to wonder why he was crying. Damon cries in We Bought A Zoo, but we know why. We may wonder why he ever stops. The Mees are far worse off without their wife and mother. We don't learn all the ways she held them together, but one thing she did is clear. She got Benjamin out the door. She inspired him and gave him the courage and the stories he reported were gifts he brought home for her. Without her, he's stuck. And he's begun to sink in place.
Fortunately, he senses this about himself and once again taking heart from Katherine's example he decides to sell their house and pack up and move, figuring that a change of scenery will do him and Dylan good. (He assumes Rosie will like it too. Then he makes her his partner in house hunting. You see the trouble developing here?) After a whole day of rejecting potential new homes, they work their way out into the country where they find a farmhouse they fall immediately in love with.
Only it's not on a farm.
They're buying a zoo.
For reasons that don't bear much thought---something to do with the park being home to several endangered species---the place has been in the custody of the federal government. Which has done minimal maintenance. There's a skeleton staff, headed by that gorgeous zoologist who happens to look like the Avengers' Black Widow. The staff is in serious need of a morale boost. The place is in a general state of disrepair. Some of the star attractions are sick. One of the tigers is dying. The grizzly bear is depressed. But Benjamin is determined to buy the house and the Feds will only sell to new owners who promise to take it over as a zoo and bring it back up to working order. Benjamin happens to be somewhat rich, thanks to a hefty inheritance from his late father, and still buoyed by his wife's memory---apparently buying a zoo is just the kind of move she’d have embraced as a great adventure---Benjamin signs on the dotted lion…um…line.
So, to save himself and his family, he needs to save the house. To save the house, he needs to save the zoo. To save the zoo, he needs to save the animals. To save the animals, he needs to save their keepers, including the gorgeous zoologist who happens to look like you know who.
All this saving provides most of the film's action. Crowe approaches it matter-of-factly. Cages---“enclosures." Benjamin has to be continually reminded of the proper terminology---have to be remodeled or rebuilt. Supplies must be bought. Bills must be paid. Animals have to be fed and medicated. Personnel issues have to be resolved. An upcoming government inspection has to be prepared for.
As you'd expect, a romance begins to bloom between Benjamin and Kelly, the gorgeous but no nonsense zoologist played by Johansson, who to her credit allows herself to not look all that much like Black Widow. Crowe treats the romantic possibilities matter-of-factly too. The big obstacle is that Benjamin has not gotten over Katherine and probably never really will.
But while we can see how both of them would be happier if they get together we can also see that won't be a disaster for either if they don't. This would present a problem for other filmmakers. How do you make a love story about a pair of potential lovers who are content not to fall in love? But then Crowe isn’t telling a love story. He's telling a story about the fascinating quirkiness and contrariness of human behavior. What's going on---or not going on--- between Kelly and Benjamin is important for what it reveals about human nature and not for how happy it might make us the audience if love triumphs in the end.
As Kelly, Johansson does her best not to look like Scarlett Johansson, and by that I don't just mean that she doesn't look like the cat suit wearing Black Widow. That's easy. What she does is look like someone who wouldn't know how to wear a cat suit. Kelly is one of those working class kids who without training or guidance find their own way onto career paths that will take them out of their parents' blue collar world and into what's been awkwardly termed the creative class. A lot of these kids wind up as artists, but many land in the sciences, usually by being already out in the field when the trained scientists arrive. Kelly has gotten where she is by following her own path and relying on herself and trusting her own judgment. She's not someone who's used to making herself pleasant for others or attractive to men. And she's not about to throw herself at somebody just because he has a good heart, great hair, and looks like a movie star.
But Kelly has plateaued, emotionally as well as professionally. In a way, she is like Ben. She's become stuck and is in danger of sinking in place.
Johansson is still too much the ingénue and not yet a leading lady and although she straddles her legs, folds her arms, roughens her voice, swigs her beers, wears her hair in a tangled bob, and allows herself to look thin, almost skinny, not in the bony way of an actress who’s been overdoing it with the dieting but in the rangy way of someone who does a lot of hard physical work outdoors and is regularly too busy to eat a proper meal, she doesn't quite convey the necessary rough and readiness of a scientist in the field making it up as she goes along. What she does a good job of capturing is Kelly's fears.
Her fear of screwing up. Her fear of being a fraud and being found out. Her fear that she is not good enough for the kind of people she's now supposedly the equals of and even the boss of. With Benjamin, she feels like the goose girl who has fallen in love with a prince.
Johansson lets us see Kelly's neediness, her chagrin at being needed, and her hurt at not being needed back. She also makes us see the courage and independence and toughness that will see her through if things don’t work out with Benjamin or the zoo but which are also getting in the way of those things with Benjamin from working out.
Of the three leading men currently at the tops of their games who are most like old-fashioned matinee idols---Damon, Clooney, and Pitt---Damon may be the one putting together the most solid body of work. I'm not saying he’s the best actor of the three. I think that's Clooney. But that's a debate that could go on all day and well into the night. But I think that as things are going when all's said and done, Damon will have made the most good movies and delivered a wider and more varied set of good performances, mainly by virtue of adhering to the Michael Caine Principle: work often, don't be too picky, have fun, give it your best, and move on quickly to the next project. We Bought A Zoo probably won't rank as one of his best films. But it shows off some of his best qualities as an actor. His ease in front of a camera, his intelligence, his timing, his restraint, and his modesty. Damon is always willing to step back and let others take over the screen and he builds a sense of self-deprecation into all his roles, even a superhero like Jason Bourne. The old actor's adage, never work with children or animals doesn't appear to have crossed his mind while working on we bought a zoo. He seems to be enjoying having scenes stolen from him by his juvenile and nonhuman co-stars.
Damon makes Benjamin a regular guy who finds it kind of funny that he's been stuck inside a movie star's body without being given a movie star's personality or ego. When someone reacts to him as if he's a Matt Damon character---that is either as an action hero or a romantic lead---he's either amused or perplexed. Mostly though he thinks it's plain wrong, but he's too polite and kind to correct them. So he just changes the subject as quickly as he can.
Plays hell with the flirting.
Damon's big scenes are with Johansson and the young actors playing Dylan and Rosie, but his best scenes may be with the dying tiger.
Spar is seventeen years old. It's his time. He's in pain and he's frightened. But Benjamin refuses to have him put down. He's convinced Spar can be saved and he's determined to try. This can be read symbolically, as if in saving Spar he's reaching back in time to save his wife. Or he's saving himself or his son. Or as if Spar is a stand-in for the whole zoo. But I think it's best if it's taken at face value, as straight as Crowe has it played. Benjamin wants to save Spar for Spar's own sake. Benjamin likes and admires the tiger and has even come to think of him as a friend. And, although Crowe doesn't push the anthropromorphication, Spar seems to like Benjamin back or at least intuit that this human cares in different way than any of the others.
As Rosie, the very tiny and angelic Maggie Elizabeth Jones delivers her lines as if repeating advice she knows is sound because she trusts its source. She doesn’t come across as wise beyond her years so much as in possession of a gift---she’s in contact with the amazing grown-up she could become if her father gets it together and takes her cues from her future self. Colin Ford puts just the right amount of terror behind Dylan’s anger. His voice, expression, and posture are those of a determinedly obnoxious teenager but in his eyes we can see the little boy who doesn’t understand what’s happening to him and is crying out to his father to save him. Elle Fanning is a constant delight as Kelly’s niece who confuses and frustrates Dylan by insisting on liking him as if he’s still the person he was before his mother died and not the rude and surly aspiring juvenile delinquent he’s aspiring to be.
John Michael Higgins plays the outwardly smug and condescending government inspector whose professionalism is offended by the zoo’s crew of people he regards as amateurs and dilettantes but who can’t hide his annoyance at himself for rooting for them to fail. As the zoo’s chief carpenter and engineer, Angus Macfadyen is the embodiment of P.G. Wodehouse’s dictum that it is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.
And J.B. Smoove steals several minutes of film as a nervous rookie realtor whose honesty and concern for Benjamin and his family compel him to try to scuttle his first big sale, the zoo.
But the movie’s scene stealer-in-chief is Tomas Haden Church who plays Duncan Mee, Benjamin’s older and in his own mind more worldly-wise brother. Duncan is an accountant but, given what we observe of his temperament and footloose and fancy-free lifestyle, his career choice seems to be on par with that of vegetarian becoming a butcher. Still, he is full of advice, financial, spiritual, practical, parental, romantic, and zoological which he delivers with the confidence of a man wholly incapable of practicing what he preaches. Church has many of the movie’s best lines, some of which Crowe may actually have written.
Church is notorious for never delivering a line as written and never repeating an adlib from take to take. He’s a mad genius of improv and for that reason he’s one of Oliver Mannion’s favorite actors and we had fun guessing which of his lines Crowe wrote and which sprang from Crowe typing something like “Here Duncan misses his ex-wife” or “Here Duncan worries about Benjamin’s financial future.” Our favorite of what we’re pretty sure was one of the latter was, “I see you working in a field in Bolivia for angry men with large mustaches.”
But there’s at least one line he delivers straight from the script, although he gives it a slightly looped reading that saves it from becoming a sentimental catchphrase and turns it into a hearty and joy-filled summing up of the movie’s central theme.
“Hell,” said that French ray of sunshine, Jean-Paul Sartre, “is other people.”
No, says Crowe through Church, the company of other people is a wonderful adventure.
“I like the animals,” Duncan declares, “but I love the humans!”
Right through my heart.
The blonde’s blurb: “Surprisingly good!”
My review of The Descendants: The man can move.
Crowe reportedly modeled We Bought a Zoo on several of his favorite movies by other directors including Bill Forsyth’s wonderful Local Hero. So be sure to note who plays Benjamin’s editor at the newspaper.
We Bought a Zoo is based on a true story. The real Benjamin Mee is British and the zoo is in England. Dartmoor Zoo is still thriving and you can visit its website.
Mee’s memoir of his family’s adventure is called…We Bought a Zoo.
We Bought A Zoo, directed by Cameron Crowe, written by Cameron Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna, based on the book by Benjamin Mee, starring Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Angus Macfadyen, Elle Fanning, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, J.B. Smoove, Patrick Fugit, and Peter Riegert. Now available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.
Speaking of Black Widow. May 4th...