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.
A perfect husband a devoted father a loyal friend a successful architect—yes Steven Burke (David Duchovny) is the kind of flawless family man we only encounter in hankie-soaking Hollywood melodramas. He exists solely to be killed off just so his friends and family can become better people through their loss. So it comes as no surprise that Steven dies a Good Samaritan's death while on his way home—of course—from buying ice cream for his two kids. If that won’t get you crying nothing will. Steven’s death leaves his wife Audrey (Halle Berry) a mess. She can’t look after herself let alone her daughter Harper (Alexis Llewellyn) and son Dory (Micah Berry). Instead Audrey turns to Steven’s best friend Jerry (Benicio Del Toro) for help. Not really the smartest choice—Audrey despises Jerry for squandering his life and career on drugs. But Audrey’s desperate for a shoulder to cry on so she inexplicably invites Jerry to stay at her home while he tries to clean up his act. Quicker than you can say “rest in peace ” Jerry’s dispensing words of wisdom to Steven’s kids and in a moment of unintentional hilarity spooning with the lonely Audrey in her bed. Audrey naturally comes to believe that Jerry isn’t the strung-out leech she’s considered him all these years. Still we can’t help but count down the minutes until Jerry slips back into his old habits. Or wonder how long it will take for Audrey to kick Jerry out of her house when the inevitable happens. Things We Lost in the Fire serves an important purpose: to make clear that Halle Berry’s performance in Monster's Ball wasn’t a happy accident. As a widow unable to function without her soul mate Berry shakes up the otherwise maudlin proceedings with a rage and intensity that’s honest and fearless. Never afraid to present Audrey as occasionally cold and unsympathetic especially in regards to her treatment of Jerry and her children Berry nevertheless always makes us feel Audrey’s burning love for Steven without resorting to Joan Crawford-like histrionics. Too bad Audrey is defined only by her role as a wife and mother—Berry never receives the chance to show that Audrey has a life outside her family. She does share a good rapport with the typically brooding Benicio Del Toro whose ravaged face reveals more about Jerry’s lifetime of self-inflicted pain and suffering than words ever could. But there is a slight spark to be found in Del Toro’s sleepy eyes which gives us the impression that Jerry has what it takes to live one day at time with the support of his new friends. David Duchovny doesn’t do much beyond smiling like he’s just been named Father of the Year for the 10th time. Not that Duchovny needs to exert himself to make Steven charming and likeable—Steven is as happy and uncomplicated as Duchovny’s Californication philanderer is as sad and screwed up. Alexis Llewellyn and Micah Berry (no relation to his onscreen mother) nail the anguish confusion and profound sense of loss that comes with grieving for a dead parent without being annoyingly precocious. How disappointing it is to discover that not even the usually calm and collected Susanne Bier can turn Things... into something more than the standard Lifetime TV weepy of the week. The Danish director’s Hollywood debut is very much like her earlier character-driven dramas in that it is preoccupied with how established family dynamics shift in the wake of a life-altering event. After the Wedding and Brothers managed to be poignant without getting too gushy but Bier cannot keep Things... from drowning in its own sentimentality. The problem clearly lies with screenwriter Allan Loeb’s emotionally manipulative script which fails from the start to convince us Audrey would open her house to her late husband’s drug buddy. Ignoring Loeb’s hard-to-swallow premise Bier does an excellent job of establishing the relationship between Audrey and Jerry. Theirs is a well-presented study in co-dependency which results in an insightful—though occasionally obvious—exploration of drug addiction the grieving process and the pursuit of personal redemption. Things... smartly avoids making much of its interracial marriage—it would only overcomplicate matters—or taking Audrey and Jerry down a path that would led to an ill-advised romance. If only Bier and Loeb showed some guts in the way they portray Steven. Surely he had at least one skeleton in his closet to make him seem more human. Everything we learn about Steven—especially about the fire referenced in the seemingly cryptic title—merely reinforces the notion that he was too good for this world. Or at least the world Hollywood thinks we live in.