There are about a dozen people who today would play Temple of the Dog with total sincerity, and only one of them is a major filmmaker. For his first fiction outing since 2005’s disastrous Elizabethtown, Cameron Crowe makes the kind of movie that hasn’t been seen in six years—namely, a Cameron Crowe movie, aka the kind of goofy-but-heartfelt picture with moony blasts of not just “Hunger Strike,” but Tom Petty, Cat Stevens and Sigur Rós.
To the filmmaker’s roster of romantic fools add Matt Damon’s Benjamin Mee, a real-life journo who, in the wake of recent widowerhood, whimsically moved his teen son and mugging younger daughter into a charmingly rustic house on the grounds of a small, dilapidated zoo. Mee’s attempts against the odds to refurbish the park, gain the trust of the motley crew stationed there (including potential love interest Scarlett Johansson), all while exhausting two separate nest eggs, proves to be classic Crowe-type material, playing to his silly and maudlin sides, all while discouraging the surreal lows that memorably plagued Elizabethtown.
Thing is, it also discourages the highs. Crowe was clearly humbled, if not traumatized, by the volatile response met by Elizabethtown, which is a shame as it’s the kind of wildly ambitious, deeply personal missive that harbors pockets of unique brilliance. Its hero may be foolhardy, but We Bought a Zoo finds its maker playing things conservatively. There are no highs, no lows, and its maker seems so concerned not to write ScarJo’s character as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl that she winds up with barely a personality. (Mee’s son does get his own MPDG, however, in Elle Fanning, a 13-year-old who of course is really into Bob Dylan.) Much of Zoo registers in a doughy middle ground; most of the park’s staff doesn’t even get a requisite wacky tic. But Crowe, the sometimes sharp writer and Billy Wilder acolyte, isn’t always dormant. He makes himself known with inspirational catchphrases (Damon’s notion of “20 seconds of courage”), a decent Altered States joke and in comic relief Thomas Haden Church, who advises Mee to “work through the 12 stages of grief, but stop just before zebras get involved.” Besides, subpar Crowe is still preferable to the Jim Carrey or Eddie Murphy vehicle this could have become.