Director Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything would be one of my top five favorite movies, if I were asked to rank the films I’ve seen. What makes it such an astonishing film to me is how realistic the characters act and interact with one another. The scene that always comes to mind for me above all others is one where the two young lovers, played by John Cusack and Ione Skye, still in the first tentative steps of their relationship, briefly touch hands but quickly draw away. There’s an honesty there, and in the way that the film listens to their strange philosophical conversations on the telephone rather than simply showing their relationship progressing via montage, that makes me kind of giddy just thinking about it. Perhaps it’s unfair, given that Say Anything was released more than two decades prior to Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo, to expect the same highs – but certainly nobody could have expected that Crowe would take his latest in the exact opposite direction, piling on as much artifice and false sentimentality as one movie can hold. It’s almost unthinkable that both films come from the same filmmaker.
The plot concerns Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), a father of two whose wife passed away of unspecified causes a mere six months ago. Despite the relative recency of Benjamin’s having become a widower, his brother pushes incessantly for him to get back into the dating game. Single women at his children’s school practically throw themselves at him in their none-too-subtle sexual advances. Does nobody in this film have a sense of propriety? In order to avoid these come-ons and the places which trigger memories of his late wife, Benjamin decides to move the family out of the city. In a bit of serendipity, Benjamin settles on a house that – surprise! – comes with a zoo. That is to say that the zoo is in the backyard and the government has stipulated that whosoever purchases the house must manage the menagerie that accompanies it, plus keep the staff employed. The staff is your usual collection of movie misfits – a drunken braggart, a coquettish youth who is the right age to have an uninteresting romance with Benjamin’s teenage son, an almost mute man (played by Patrick Fugit) whose only defining characteristic is the hilarious capuchin which is constantly on his shoulder, an intelligent and headstrong woman (Scarlett Johansson) leading the pack and inevitably falling in love with Benjamin despite their initial incompatability.
From there, the film moves in the most frustratingly lifeless ways. Benjamin’s son is angry and unresponsive to any attempts that his father makes to get close to him. How much do you want to bet that his drawings of dismembered bodies will transform into drawings of animals despite his initial aversion to the move? The young girl Lily (Elle Fanning) fawns over him constantly though he is nothing but rude to her. Why? Because that is what has to happen for the movie to work. If a boy and a girl of a similar age, or a man and a woman of a similar age, do not fall in love by film’s end then something has gone wrong. Formula necessitates such coupling, even if the pairing boggles the mind objectively. Benjamin and his zoo manager Kelly also grow toward one another, and though it is more believable than in the case of the teens, their courtship is no less uncomfortable. Meanwhile a sinister zoo inspector shows up to criticize every aspect of the park and draw into question whether the ragtag group will be able to put enough work into the upkeep in time for opening day. Benjamin’s youngest daughter calls him a dick, even though she doesn’t know what it means, because hahahahaha ohmygod a child using adult language way to overturn my expectations about what kind of language a young child is liable to use! Or wait, sorry, what I mean is: because this is a film that’s been slapped together from pieces of other mediocre movies.
I don’t want to get too far into spoiler territory here, but suffice it to say that there is not one, but two instances of deus ex machina which are introduced to help the plot get out of a jam. Both times, it draws the movie past implausible or ridiculous into downright enraging. The corners the movie cuts in order to worm its way out of its forced conflict are astounding. Okay, let me give you an example: days prior to the zoo’s opening, a storm begins brewing and weathermen and weatherwomen on television are announcing that the End Days are upon us, the rain will continue indefinitely and nobody should leave their houses – especially don’t go to any zoos, that’s the worst place you can be when it rains. This looks to spell disaster for the newly revamped animal park, given that 99% of a zoo’s revenue is made on its opening day (or that seems to be the case, given how much importance is placed on this single day). Benjamin wakes up dreading the worst, but opens his blinds to reveal the sun shining bright and not a cloud in sky. Silly meteorologists, you really have no idea how to predict the weather at all! Oh wait, sorry, what I mean is: silly screenwriters, you really have no idea how reality works at all!
I don’t know, maybe there are a few salvageable moments. Springing to mind immediately is a scene where Benjamin looks at photos of his wife on his computer, then stares into space with tears in his eyes as a memory of his family dancing happily in a circle plays out in front of him. Also of note is a scene where the zoo crew attempt to talk a lion down off of a rock by creating a bunch of noise to scare it – as the ruckus diminishes, Benjamin is still in the moment screaming out his myriad frustrations. But these minor positive notes are overshadowed by the rote, the lame, the lazy cluster of cliches. And once again, given that Crowe is the man behind one of my very favorite films, the lack of humanity here goes beyond disappointing for me; it feels dispiriting.
Cameron Crowe is clearly capable of so much better than We Bought a Zoo. There’s really no excuse for this film.