No actors’ egos were hurt during the filming of We Bought a Zoo.
People are feeling sorry for Matt Damon, wondering why he even signed up for a family drama involving zoo animals, but Zoo isn’t the embarrassing disaster you might fear. It’s mild, uneven and certainly one of the lesser efforts in the filmographies of both Damon and director Cameron Crowe, but it’s not anything to be ashamed of. How’s that for faint praise?
Based on a true story (it’s easier to accept if you don’t think Crowe made it up), the movie follows recent widower Benjamin Mee, who is struggling to care for his young daughter and tween son, not to mention his own tender grief. On an impulse, he decides a private zoo that has fallen into disrepair might offer just the sort of family bonding they all need.
Crowe (Almost Famous) is too nuanced of a filmmaker to let this entirely drift into sentimental mush. And so We Bought a Zoo mostly works on you honestly, with a few lovely touches. (Only a parent would know that when the little girl is labeling her self-made PB&J sandwiches for school, the “J” would be written backwards.)
When he isn’t dodging porcupines, Damon is quite good, ably communicating the flailing desperation of a man who has 10 things on his mind at once, all of them heavy. And Johansson actually gets to act, something she hasn’t had a chance to do since 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona. As the beleaguered zookeeper, she exudes a sweet practicality. She, Damon and Crowe handle the characters’ complicated relationship with refreshing delicacy.
That’s not to say other elements won’t make you gag, some of them also Crowe trademarks. Maggie Elizabeth Jones, who plays the young daughter, is painfully “movie cute,” while the climax is awkwardly inspirational. And yet the film has a sweet epilogue, in which Benjamin reenacts the day he met his wife for his kids. It’s vintage Crowe in terms of emotional authenticity, and possibly the reason Damon took the part.