Why I Love Cameron Crowe and We Bought A Zoo

  • Director – Cameron Crowe
  • Starring – Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Elle Fanning
  • Writer – Cameron Crowe,  Aline Brosh McKenna, Benjamin Mee
  • Year – 2011
  • Running Time – 124 mins
 
SOME MILD SPOILERS FOR WE BOUGHT A ZOO

 Cameron Crowe is one of my favourite directors and writers.  His films have had a profound effect on my life and at least two (Say Anything and Almost Famous) would make it into my top ten list.  The others would almost certainly be in a top 50.

I find Crowe’s films inspiring and I often turn to them when life is in one of its downward spirals, as he has the ability to renew my faith in human nature.  His films remind you what is important in life and appreciate what you have.  They tend to focus on family (shown often through single parents), relationships, friends and more often than not music.

All his movies come from the heart; they are deeply personal and slightly unorthodox.  He is not prolific, but dedicated.  For example Jerry Maguire took over 5 years to make and went through almost 20 drafts of the script before he was happy.  He puts his heart and soul into every inch of the screen and every note on the score and soundtrack. All his films are truly his.

I have found myself being able to personally relate to all of his films on some level.  This is no doubt helped by the majority of his leading roles being a slightly geeky male, a little too much into films and music, and seen by his contemporaries as a bit of an outcast, a slight misfit, or as referred to in Almost Famous, one of the uncool.   This pretty much describes my teenage years, but I hope I have cooled up little bit since then.

I love the little things that seem to make it into all his movies that fill you with energy and inspiration.  I bet everyone reading this has at some point in their life slid a CD into the car stereo or turned that dial up to 10 and sang at the top of their voices.  How good did that feel?  How many of us guys have wanted to be Lloyd Dobbler from Say Anything? Man, I know I have.  To put yourself out there like he did, just totally on the edge, was truly fantastic.  I think have been chasing that one moment all my life.

When asked about ElizabethTown, a film seen by many to be his weakest, he said

“Well people who love it, love it a lot. And people that don’t love it, don’t love it a lot.  And that’s fine.  It always comes back to “why did you make that movie?” It was a pure thing for me – it’s for my Dad.  The memories he left behind”

That’s my kind of guy.

So, as you can guess I am a bit of fan, so was looking forward to We Bought A Zoo, Crowe’s latest film that tells the true story of Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), a single father, who after losing his wife buys a house in the country, which also contains a rundown zoo, in desperate need of repair.

Again Crowe has taken a simple story and truly gets to the heart of it.  Some have accused the film of being overly cheesy and too saccharine, but to me he pitched it just right.  There is no doubt it is a film (and indeed a story) that tugs the heart strings, but unlike films such as War Horse, the audience doesn’t feel manipulated into those emotions.  We Bought A  Zoo feels like what it is, simply a true life emotional story.

Whilst the script is not purely Crowe’s (it is based on Benjamin Mee’s real memoir),  there is no doubting this is a Cameron Crowe film.  Familiar themes run throughout, which are brought to the screen by the universally excellent cast.  Damon is simply outstanding as Benjamin Mee and the conviction that he brings to the role is one of the main reasons behind the films success.  Throughout the film he is simply honest and believable.  Scarlett Johansson as Kelly Foster the head zookeeper has never been better.  Here she has found a role that finally fits her.  Her interaction with Damon and his family feels warm and genuine; her passion for the zoo and its animals feels real.  Too often we have seen her in roles that are either too glamorous or too dowdy, here, finally, she is just right.

The film follows Benjamin struggling to come to terms with losing his wife, whilst trying to hold his family together.  He doesn’t look go looking for sympathy and in fact you get the feeling that he doesn’t actually have the time to grieve.  He is suddenly a single parent struggling with school runs, an endless supply of lasagnes from hopeful single school mums, chasing a story for work and dealing with a teenage son and a very inquisitive little girl.  And it is these two relationships, which are at the heart of this film.

Benjamin buys the house and accompanying zoo with the best of intentions, but soon realises that a new start doesn’t necessary make the memories or the hurt go away.  The family struggles to settle and adjust to their new wilder surroundings.  None more so that Benjamin’s son Dylan (Colin Ford), who is trying to come terms with the loss of his mother, moving home and of course being a teenager. Benjamin tries to reach out to him, but is rebuffed, so finding himself in the position that most parents will face at some point of not being able to reach their child.   The two simply are unable to communicate.  Dylan blames his father for dragging him away from his school and friends, whilst each time Benjamin looks at him he sees his wife.   Watching the frustrations that both feel during these scenes is powerful film making.

Benjamin’s relationship with his daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) is more straightforward, as she is at the age of easy acceptance and endless optimism.  She is in her element in the zoo and wanders around in what seems like a constant state of amazement.  However we never really see the affect that losing her mother has had on her, which is unfortunate, as it would have an interesting counterbalance to Dylan.

However it is Benjamin’s on-going relationship with his wife Katherine (Stephanie Szostak) that is the hardest for Benjamin to deal with.  Whilst the bustle of day-to-day life brings some much-needed distraction, it is the long hours after the kids have gone to bed that are the most difficult.  Here Benjamin loses himself in his memories and although he clearly wants to, struggles to look at photos of the past life that he so desperately wants back.  As Benjamin himself states; he simply can’t let go.  Cameron judges these scenes well, focussing tight up on Damon throughout.  You feel an element of what he must be going through, but at no time do you feel that you are intruding.

But onto the zoo, which provides some much needed distraction and focus for the family.   They say animals have a healing quality and that is certainly true here. The supporting cast of zookeepers aren’t too mean on their new and very eager boss and allow him to learn the ropes whilst decked out in his shinny new work-boots.  Benjamin’s brother (Thomas Haden Church), brings some real comedic balance to proceedings and looks on in bemusement and tries to talk him out of the whole daft adventure before it ruins him.  A brief cameo by John Michael Higgins as the zoo inspector forges the team together in order to bring the zoo up to spec and provides some of the most entertaining and more light-hearted moments.

I have never been in this situation that the real life Benjamin Mee found himself in and I hope that I never have to, so I do not know how realistic the portrayal of the loss was.  It did however feel real to me.  I felt as if I lived with the family for a couple of hours.  I laughed with them, I cried with them and I felt joy with them.

This is no truer than in the final scene.  Here Crowe elicits a moment of real joy from what could be a moment of real sadness, and is the perfect example of the incredible gift that Crowe has of being able to strip away what is unnecessary and show you what is important.  Often it is the simple things that get you.

★★★★

Review by Will Malone

If you liked We Bought A Zoo, then try Punch Drunk Love