Matt Pais, @mattpais
RedEye movie critic
December 22, 2011
**1/2 (out of four)
I’m obviously a softie.
Why? Because I recognize that director/co-writer Cameron Crowe’s “We Bought A Zoo,” largely fictionalized from Benjamin Mee’s memoir, packs in so much heavy-handed emotion that the sentence “You may not leave until you get a tear in your eye!” may as well appear on the screen. And yet the PG-rated film connected with me, schmaltz and all.
Matt Damon stars as Benjamin, who purchases a Southern California zoo to provide a huge change of scenery following the death of his wife (Stephanie Szostak of “Dinner for Schmucks”). Not only does this rid Benjamin of the neighborhood mothers who present him with sympathy lasagnas—one woman clearly wants to cheer him up with more than lasagna—but it offers a chance for 14-year-old Dylan (Colin Ford) and seven-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) to share their ex-reporter dad’s longtime fondness for adventure.
Actually, Dylan’s not that keen on being so far from his friends, but a budding flirtation with Lily (Elle Fanning), an underwritten character who works on the zoo premises, keeps him occupied. Lily’s cousin, a zookeeper named Kelly, is played by Scarlett Johansson, so you can probably guess that the romantic possibilities between she and Benjamin are more than zero.
Too often Crowe goes for cutesy when sweet will do, and several very Crowe-esque songs (Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike,” Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl”) don’t mix with the rest of the film’s music by Sigur Ros frontman Jonsi. Still, I can’t resist some of Crowe’s well-meaning details, whether it’s Benjamin lamenting that “whatever” is recent history’s laziest word or teaching his kids about the power that comes from 20 seconds of courage.
Damon’s exceptional when Benjamin navigates his own grief and his relationship with his children, and Thomas Haden Church is hilarious as Benjamin’s brother, who advises him to stretch himself but “stop just before zebras get involved.” “We Bought A Zoo” spends most of its time manipulating the heartstrings, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t succeed in moving mine.
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