Review: ‘We Bought A Zoo’ showcases Matt Damon at his tear-jerking best

I am a weepy old man.

I’ve always had one of those filters where I am wide open to movies, and if one of them finds my spot, and I get emotionally played for two hours, I’m not going to walk out afterwards angry because I got played.  That’s why I bought the ticket.  And ever since I had kids, I find that my antenna are even more attuned to it, and I am easier than ever to set off.  I could pretend to be above it, or I could strike a much more cynical and calculated pose in my writing, but if I’m being honest with you, I’m a sap.  I cop to it completely.

As a result, I did my best to run out a side door so I didn’t have to make eye contact with anyone after “We Bought A Zoo” tonight at the Pacific Winnetka, just one of the thousands of theaters where 20th Century Fox held a nationwide sneak tonight.  I didn’t want to see anyone because I know I was a mess.  It got so bad at one point that I started laughing at just how expertly director Cameron Crowe was punching my button.  This movie is a big fat right down the middle mainstream family movie, and I’m guessing that word of mouth is going to be very strong.

There’s a running thread in the film about courage, and in particular, about the courage it takes to lay yourself bare emotionally in front of someone else.  That’s certainly true on a personal scale, but it’s even more true when you’re talking about a filmmaker who makes such nakedly, openly emotional films.  Last time out for Cameron Crowe was “Elizabethtown,” and he didn’t just misstep… he got creamed.  People still drag that one out as a punchline when they need to drop in the title of something that’s universally hated, and much of what people rejected about the film is the exact same stuff they embraced about his earlier work, which must have left Crowe feeling vulnerable.

The music documentaries he’s been making feel like the easy sidestep for him, no matter how much I liked them.  As a guy who started as a music journalist, that world is one he understands innately, and he’s able to build narrative out of the story of a band very very easily.  Even for a non-fan, something like “Pearl Jam Twenty” works because of the way he walks that fine line between mythmaking and reporting, and he never really lays on a heavy editorial hand.  You can tell the film is expertly made, but it’s Pearl Jam’s personality that comes through loudest in that film, not Crowe’s.

Here, it’s Crowe hanging out there again, and he’s such a big-hearted filmmaker, so good at turning on the emotion, that I don’t think he’d be comfortable embracing the cynicism and emotional remove that is so much of today’s pop culture landscape.  I think it takes genuine courage for a filmmaker who took such crazy abuse on his last film to make something as overtly sweet and gentle and open as “We Bought A Zoo,” and if you’re in any way adverse to sentiment, don’t even bother with this one.  For me, though, this film had my number from the very beginning, and it kept hitting me dead center, over and over again.

Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) has made a career as a reporter out of taking part in life-threatening adventures, and that danger junkie personality has served him well.  That’s stopped cold, though, when his wife takes ill and passes away, leaving him to raise his kids Dylan (Colin Ford) and Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones).  Dylan’s old enough that the death of his mother tears a hole in him, and he sinks into a sullen teenager routine while his little sister simply tries to keep her father afloat.  Sensing that he’s doing everything wrong, Benjamin takes it as a sign when Dylan is expelled from school, and he decides to move them away from Los Angeles so they can get a fresh start.

As the title promises, they find a property that features a real working zoo, but that needs a new owner to keep it from being closed down for good.  More importantly, someone needs to keep the animals from being destroyed, which is the state’s only real option if they can’t find a buyer.  As Benjamin tours the property with their realtor (J.B. Smoove) and Rosie, she seems immediately at home, and there’s a moment where Benjamin’s trying to come up with all the reasons not to buy the house, only to be stopped when he sees Rosie feeding some peacocks, already at home, and that was the first place where the movie effortlessly coaxed the tears out of me, at which point I knew I was sunk.

The whole thing has a shaggy rough-around-the-edges feel, and I have no idea how much the screenplay (credited to Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna) actually follows Mee’s autobiographical book.  It’s light on structure and long on character, and that’s the charm of it.  The zoo comes with a whole bunch of animals and more than a few humans as well.  There’s Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), the head zookeeper, and Robin Jones (Patrick Fugit, looking about four feet taller than he was in “Almost Famous) and groundskeeper MacCready (Angus Macfadyen), among others, and they’re all ready-to-wear eccentrics with big personalities, but Crowe underplays much of their material.  He keeps a firm grip on what could easily tip towards the sitcom side of things, and he keeps bringing the film back to Benjamin’s journey towards being a whole person again.  There is a sorrow that underscores everything in the film, and Crowe lets it bleed through from time to time.  He works just as hard to avoid the maudlin as the sitcom, and it does not look like an easy line to walk, but he pulls it off.

There are things I wasn’t crazy about.  John Michael Higgins shows up playing William Atherton’s role in “Ghostbusters,” the officious prick who seems to love making people miserable, and Thomas Haden Church, who can be very good in the right role, seems like he’s in a different film, a much broader one.  But they’re balanced out by seeing Johansson playing a normal human being for the first time in a while, and it’s amazing how appealing she is when stripped of all gimmicks and when she’s not in superhero mode.  Damon, who can be a great stealth weirdo given the right material, is at his earnest best here, and he’s really powerful at times.  There’s a sequence of him looking at family photos that takes a big chance in terms of how it plays visually, but he sells it, and the same is true of the final scene in the film, which could easily be emotional overkill if he didn’t make it live and breathe somehow.  Instead of being one scoop of ice cream too many, it serves to illuminate Benjamin’s mid-movie attitude, and it also pulls off a bit of a magic trick that is the final step in healing this family.

Two young performers stand out in the film, and the first is Elle Fanning, who has had a pretty tremendous year.  I just rewatched “Super 8” the other day, and while I still have some issues with the film, there’s no denying her work in it.  She’s exactly the sort of girl who is going to break a million young hearts, and she has ready access to her emotions in a way that feels more honest than even the most high-powered histrionics of her sister Dakota.  Here, she plays a homeschooled girl who is a little awkward, a little goofy, and utterly charming from start to finish.  Fanning is turning into a real powerhouse, and as directors figure out how to use her, she could easily be one of the most impressive actors in her age group in the years ahead.  The other kid who just killed me here is Maggie Elizabeth Jones, who plays the seven-year-old Rosie.  She’s an adorable kid, but more than that… she’s real about it.  She is smart and sweet and sunshiney, and when she smiles, the dark clouds of her mother’s death roll back, and you can see why Benjamin would move heaven and earth to protect some small part of her childhood.

The songs that are peppered throughout are all well-chosen, which should come as no surprise in a Cameron Crowe film, but I thought the score by Jonsi was a knockout.  It may well be the secret weapon in Crowe’s war on my tear ducts, and combined with the sun-dappled beauty of Rodrigo Prieto’s photography, it’s about as gorgeous as mainstream filmmaking gets.  It’s interesting to see how far Crowe’s come as a director since “Say Anything,” which I always liked, but which was basically functional on a visual level.  He’s always had an eye for a few big images, but little by little, he’s become a very accomplished visual filmmaker, and this movie’s so confident, so simple, that it’s almost deceptive.  I don’t think this was “easy,” but he certainly makes it look like it was.

Here’s the thing about film criticism… I’ve taken some real heat in my inbox over the last few days because I didn’t like “The Artist” enough or because I liked “The Muppets” too much or because I’m wrong about “Hugo” being great, and in each case, the feedback I get treats filmmaking like some science where one result will be the same for each viewer.  That’s crazy, though.  The reason you can’t just read one review by someone is because film taps into so many personal places for each of us that my experience and my reaction is OBVIOUSLY going to be colored by my own personal history.  In this case, I have no doubt that a big part of my reaction is because of the ways Rosie reminds me of my younger son, Allen, and because of my own complicated marriage and because of the way I view what I do for a living as an opportunity to not only involve my kids but shape them.  All of that is tied up together in there, bouncing around inside me, and those tears the film earned from me tonight are in part because of what is on the screen and in part because of what I bring to it.  I know that, and yet I can still explain to you what I think is strong about the film.  I look for one thing in any film I endorse these days, and that is a recognizable humanity.  I need to see people act in a way that people really act, and I need some honesty at some level in the text.  More than style, more than technique or clever concept or even punchy dialogue… I need something real.  And that’s what happens repeatedly in this film.  Things just snap into focus, and Crowe captures something so right that it hurts.

If you see it and you reject the sweetness or you can’t hang with the open-hearted nature of the thing, I’m not going to argue with you.  But I’ve seen what naked manipulation looks like, and that’s not “We Bought A Zoo.”  It’s just a film that wears its emotions right out front, and somehow, Crowe is able to brush aside any thoughts of what people will or won’t think and just focus on building those moments that he does so well, those heartbreaking little moments of magic that have been the main currency of his career.  Cameron Crowe remains, as always, uncool.  And wonderful for it.  “We Bought A Zoo” is lovely, delicate, and absolutely worth seeing with your family this holiday season.

“We Bought A Zoo” opens everywhere on December 23, 2011.