Cameron Crowe gets out of movie jail with charming and commercial ‘We Bought A Zoo’

Cameron Crowe’s Get Out of Jail card just hit theaters.  Well, it hit your multiplex for a sneak peek on Saturday night.  “We Bought A Zoo” is Crowe’s first movie since the disastrous “Elizabethtown” in 2005.  That romance Crowe’s second critical failure after “Vanilla Sky,” but the former thriller still had enough Tom Cruise star power to turn a profit. Not only did “Elizabethtown” cool Crowe’s previously lauded career, but it was one of the reasons Cruise and his then producing partner, Paula Wagner, found themselves out of a production deal at Paramount.  Now, six years later, Crowe returns with “Zoo,” a very commercial dramedy with some of the filmmaker’s trademark touches thrown in for good measure.

My colleagues Drew McWeeny and Kris Tapley will provide a review and commentary, respectively, on the film later tonight or tomorrow, but having conveniently hit the east coast today, I took the liberty of catching “Zoo’s” national sneak this evening in New York City. Some quick thoughts…  

First off, as has been mentioned by numerous media types on Twitter, 20th Century Fox has hit a new standard in having every major critic and entertainment writer pay to see the movie in theaters.  For a studio that is known for providing as few critics screenings as possible (unless it’s “Avatar”), this is somewhat ingenious. Moreover, the fact critics are seeing it with a paid and likely un-jaded audience is even more remarkable.

Secondly, as this pundit had heard, “Zoo” is not an awards season player, but, hey, that’s O.K.  “Zoo” is a very well made dramedy about a widower (Matt Damon) who takes a chance on shaking up the lives of his kids (the incredibly well cast Maggie Elizabeth Jones and Colin Ford) by quitting his reporter job at a major newspaper (let’s say it’s the LA Times since they shot the scene on the floor I used to work on) and moving the entire family to the relative countryside where he buys a house that happens to have a “zoo” as part of the deal (which as the picture goes along really becomes more of a small animal park).  Along the way he’ll try to patch up his relationship with his son (Ford) and work with a group of dedicated zoo workers (led by a very relaxed and confident Scarlett Johansson) to get the zoo reopened.  It’s all loosely based on Benjamin Mee’s memoir of the same name, except his family’s story took place in England. As for the awards game, there is a very, very, very slight chance “Zoo” could land a best adapted screenplay nomination for Crowe and co-screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (“The Devil Wears Prada”), but that seems like a stretch.  More likely, some key Golden Globe nominations for best comedy or musical, best actor in a comedy or musical (Damon) and maybe best score (Jónsi).  

Third, the Christmas box office just became even more competitive that it was even expected to be.  There will always be winners and losers during a holiday frame, but “Zoo’s” clearly going for the older female demo of Fox’s previous Christmas hit “Marley & Me.” That puts it up against an expected expansion for “The Artist,” Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” and the second weekend of “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “The Adventures of Tintin.”  Plus, Fox’s own “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked” and Warner Bros. “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” should both still be raking it in over the Christmas through New Year’s Eve holidays (We’re not counting “The Darkest Hour” since its demo is clearly the polar opposite of “Zoo’s”).  This crowded release frame is one of the reasons Fox has taken the gutsy move of sneaking a month early.  It’s also why the film’s primary print campaign is now of a zebra with a bow on it (remember this?) and not of stars Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson.  

More important for hardcore Crowe fans, however, is that with his most commercial picture to date, the “Almost Famous” and “Jerry Maguire” director has delivered a movie that should have good word of mouth and longterm playability.  And, the more it makes at the box office the more Hollywood will want to embrace his riskier endeavors.  Is it one of his best?  No, but Crowe’s involvement has made it a much better movie than it would have been without him. After a rough decade, that’s a significant achievement.

“We Bought A Zoo” opens nationwide on Dec. 23.

Did you catch the “Zoo” sneak Saturday night?  What did you think of it? Share your thoughts below.

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