Silver Screen: We Bought a Zoo ****
We Bought a Zoo is a bit of a tough sell. What, exactly, is the movie about? A family buys a zoo, and...? The answer isn't an easy description, and the film-- though not particularly complicated-- isn't easy summarized in a tagline or a trailer. Being difficult to categorize, however, might be the film's biggest flaw. It's otherwise a funny and inspiring family drama deftly acted by an excellent cast.
Matt Damon stars as Benjamin Mee, a journalist with a bent for adventure whose life is completely upended by his wife's death. He stops traveling to exotic locales for work and throws himself into domesticity with earnest enthusiasm, but as we can see from the movie’s opening moments, he's less than entirely successful. The house is cluttered and in disarray, and his teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford) has grown rebellious, stealing and getting expelled from school by day and by night filling his sketchbook with dark, angry drawings.
Somewhat on a whim, Benjamin decides they need a change of scenery, and then on an even bigger whim he buys an old country house with a surprising twist: The property comes with a mostly decommissioned zoo. The remaining animals are being cared for by a skeleton crew of workers, funded by the state, but if someone doesn't purchase and reopen the facility it will be closed for good and many of the animals put down. It's a lark, but Benjamin hopes reconnecting with nature and having an adventure will help him reform his family.
While he contends with his son and young daughter, Benjamin also must deal with the oddball crew of employees led by head zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson) and including a rowdy exhibit designer (Angus Macfadyen), a homespun accountant (Carla Gallo), and a thirteen-year-old volunteer (Elle Fanning) who's sweet on the junior Mee. Together they must work to bring the zoo up to code over the objections of a surly inspector (John Michael Higgins).
Higgins's overwritten, excessively villainous government regulator is the movie's one big misstep. He's a detestable caricature who exists for no other reason than to lend further sympathy to the zoo crew. But the film does such a nice job with the individual characters they don't even need an antagonist. This one sour note mostly just winds up underscoring how natural the rest of the characters are and how complex and interesting their relationships become.
No doubt Damon does most of the heavy lifting. Though not as flashy as his more obviously demanding roles, Benjamin turns out to be one of his strongest performances. He's extraordinarily likable without shying away from his character's rough edges, and he nicely underplays Benjamin’s grief over his dead wife, revealing those emotions subtly in surprising moments. It's a Jimmy Stewart kind of role where, by the end of the film, you'd be crushed if anything bad happened to the guy.
Damon gets plenty of assistance from costar Johansson, who doesn't have a lot of big dramatic moments but brings a real gravity to her no-nonsense animal caretaker. The cast is nicely rounded out by Thomas Haden Church as Benjamin's pragmatic brother, as well as nice smaller turns from Patrick Fugit as a zoo employee and J.B. Smoove as a realtor.
Everyone (well, everyone save poor Higgins) is well-served by the script from Aline Brosh McKenna and director Cameron Crowe, based on the real-life Benjamin Mee's nonfiction book. This represents something of a return to form for Crowe, who took a six-year hiatus after helming a pair of flops, the melodramatic remake of Vanilla Sky and the flop dramedy Elizabethtown. Crowe's strong suit is sharp dialogue and character-based stories, and he's on his game here, crafting a feel-good movie that well earns its flashes of sentimentality.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.