We Bought a Zoo opens with the voice of Dylan Mee (Colin Ford) narrating glimpses of his journalist father Benjamin's (Matt Damon) worldly adventures. Ben's been embedded with violent dictators covered with killer bees and flown through the eye of a hurricane but as Dylan explicitly states "nothing prepared him for this one"—the "this one" being the titular purchasing of a zoo on the brink of closure. Director Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire Almost Famous) has never been one for subtly but that's never been the goal. We Bought a Zoo drops the cynicism wears its heart on its sleeve and doesn't mind laying it on thick in an effort to move you which it does—whether you like it or not.
Six months after his wife's death Ben still doesn't have a grasp on how to be a good parent. He struggles to throw together bagged lunches for his daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) watches Dylan downward spiral into school expulsion reluctantly accepts lasagnas from the sympathetic family friends and grieves over iPhoto montages of a life that once was. Every corner of his home conjures up familial memories prompting Ben to hightail it out of town. After a desperate house hunt Ben sets his sights on a stunning country home that comes with one twist: it's the home to lions and tiger and bears (oh my!).
Along with its diverse collection of fauna Ben's new zoo sports a colorful cast of staff members including Peter MacCready the temperamental Scottish maintenance man Robin the laid-back handyman with a monkey on his shoulder and Kelly the young committed animal handler (Scarlett Johansson). Ben inspires his team with motivational speeches (and signed checks) and together they work to rebuild and reopen the park.
We Bought a Zoo explores its themes of loss and renewal on the surface with cartoony characters hammy dialogue and a score by Jónsi of Sigur Rós that steers you towards an emotional destination. But it all works thanks in large part to Matt Damon's charm and a general air of niceness to the whole package. Damon is one of the few stars capable of playing a Regular Joe. Watching him have his butt kicked by zoo chores is delightful while he adds true gravity to the dramatic moments. Whether he's butting heads with his morose son in a screaming match or tearing up over his inescapable past Damon digs deeper than Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna's (The Devil Wears Prada 27 Dresses) screenplay. The rest of the cast manages to elevate the material too—Johansson keeps herself down to Earth; Thomas Haden Church as Ben's skeptical brother Duncan knocks every joke out of the park; And the young Elle Fanning inspires once again as Kelly's bubbly tween cousin who falls for the disgruntled Dylan (although no one seems to have a problem with a 12-year-old spending her days working/living at a zoo; her parents are completely out of the picture).
The movie doesn't take unexpected turns or make profound statements but it succeeds in its goal of tugging the audience's heartstrings. The world of We Bought a Zoo is one where everything works out if you persevere have hope and open yourself up to love. That's not reality but rather inspirational thinking. Perfect for the holiday season.
Shot in a nervous intrusive style Rachel Getting Married is a blistering portrait of a family during a tension-filled wedding weekend. The long-simmering conflicts come to the surface at an event that’s supposed to be about good times. Actually the title is a bit of a misnomer since although it is indeed Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) getting hitched the plot really revolves around her troubled sister Kym (Hathaway) who comes straight from a stint in rehab to the family gathering. In attending the wedding she brings a boatload of personal issues--sibling and parental resentments and a whole host of other problems guaranteed to make everyone in the room uncomfortable. This all comes to a head early on at the pre-wedding dinner at which she makes an awkward piercing toast that puts the entire place on edge. It doesn’t help that her father (Bill Irwin) is rather weak and overprotective and her mother (Debra Winger) is now remarried and has moved on to a different kind of life--disconnected from her daughters emotionally. The wedding a Hindu ceremony becomes a catalyst for personal confrontations that finally break out into the open. The ensemble cast assembled by director Jonathan Demme is simply unbeatable--led by a breakthrough performance from Hathaway. Her wry ironic humor internal self-loathing seething conflicts and heartbreaking emotional vulnerability are all the by-products of a young woman who desperately needs to be embraced. This is a major acting turn and those who only think of Hathaway from Ella Enchanted and The Princess Diaries are going to be surprised to see the emergence of an actress who is the real thing. As her sister Rachel DeWitt who also was impressive as the mistress in season one of Mad Men doesn’t get to take center stage but has several strong moments. Watch out for this one. Irwin and Winger prove the meaning of the word “pro” in their limited screen time. In just a couple of big scenes Winger totally nails the mother and her need to distance her relationship with her own family. You only wish the part was fleshed out a little more especially since great roles for Winger seem to be few and far between these days. Irwin is equally impressive likeable but clueless as far as the real drama playing out between his daughters. This Tony-winning Broadway veteran gives us a lifetime of information about his character in just a few scattered moments. The Oscar-winning Demme (Silence of the Lambs Philadelphia) has spent the last few years doing documentaries and concert films so it’s nice to report he’s got his mojo back with his first narrative film since 2004’s The Manchurian Candidate remake. Actually Rachel seems influenced by some of his recent non-fictional work with a documentary style approach to screenwriter Jenny Lumet’s somewhat conventional scripting. The use of hand-held cameras is pervasive and has the intended effect of bringing out raw emotions in the kind of cinema verite Robert Altman often employed. In a nod to the obvious inspiration the late Altman is thanked in the end credits. Demme’s in-your-face filmmaking might be oft-putting to some members of the audience but it effectively heightens the reality of the piece separating Rachel from the pack. Ultimately this is a performance piece and Demme has brought out the best of his cast of fine actors gaining award-worthy turns.