Review: We Bought A Zoo

daniel cohen kicks off the new year with a look at director Cameron Crowe’s latest flick …

Plot: Months after his wife’s (Stephanie Szostak) death, Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) moves himself and two children to a new house located on a zoo. With no experience, Ben sinks most of his money into running the zoo, but strives to get it re-opened with the help of the Staff.

For a movie called We Bought A Zoo, there really aren’t all that many animals in it. There’s a lion and tiger, but that’s about it. But let’s focus on the humans. Matt Damon is one of those actors who can single handedly carry a movie, and he does it once again in director Cameron Crowe’s (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) latest.

Benjamin Mee is the prototypical likable funny nice guy. You sympathize with him a great deal because of the death of his wife, and he’s just an easy character to get on board with. Damon plays it perfectly.

But he’s not the only one. Scarlett Johansson as the head zoo keeper Kelly is equally as funny and likable. She and Damon have great banter. I also enjoyed Thomas Haden Church as Benjamin’s brother, who has some of the funnier dialogue in the film. And that’s saying something, because I’m not the biggest Thomas Haden Church fan. I put him in the Paul Bettany category of people who put me to sleep with very little charisma.

Unfortunately, the performances are the only thing to really write home about it. This movie suffers from a lot of bad Cameron Crowe-isms. The dialogue is really direct at times, especially with the Scarlett Johansson character: really clunky and awkward. There’s also way too many ‘mans’ spoken by Damon’s character. I don’t know if Cameron Crowe lost a bet and he needed to fill a ‘man’ quota, but it’s pretty ridiculous.

He also over does it on the cute kid factor. There’s Benjamin’s daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), who’s basically like the kid in Jerry Maguire, but on cute steroids. It was a little much, and the film in general is just a little too sappy for me.

But the cute kid was far from the most annoying character. There’s this zoo worker named MacCready (Angus Macfadyen) who’s unbearable. While other characters are funny, the film really tries to make MacCready the true comic relief in this dramedy, and it just doesn’t work. He has this irritating tiff with the zoo inspector (John Michael Higgins), who is equally annoying as he’s basically played up like a super villain. Elle Fanning, who we just saw in Super 8, also has her fair share of groan inducing scenes. She plays a thirteen year old, but she basically acts like she’s eight. The relationship between her and Benjamin’s son Dylan (Colin Ford) just doesn’t work.

One of the relationships that did work though was the father/son tension between Benjamin and Dylan. Although Dylan was kind of a jackass (aren’t all teenagers), the conflict they have throughout the movie is one of the more compelling aspects, as Dylan hates adapting to this new zoo.

The pacing is pretty bad. The movie meanders along for a while, as it’s mostly watching Benjamin sink all his money into a looming disaster. It really lingers on plot points, especially the constant harkening back to the dead wife. It dominates way too much of the film. I get it, it sucks, it’s depressing, but why do we have to keep repeating the same thing?

A lot of the important moments of the film are stretched out. I don’t think the ending is to hard to predict, but the movie is constantly throwing curve balls in the last fifteen minutes to try and throw you off guard, but it doesn’t really work. I do admire Crowe’s persistence though in trying to steer away from the inevitable predictable ending.

While the film is overly long and formulaic, I think it will leave you with a good feeling. Damon and Johansson really carry it. With good performances, and a good score, this is a solid Cameron Crowe entry.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10 (Slightly Better than ‘Meh’)

Daniel Cohen is the hard-boiled Film Editor for the Pop Break. Besides reviews, Daniel writes box office predictions, Gotham reviews and Oscar coverage. He can also be found on the Breakcast. If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow's fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.