A widowed father switches careers in "We Bought a Zoo," and (too) many "awww" moments ensue.
"We Bought a Zoo" is as phony as a Kardashian marriage. Director/writer Cameron Crowe proved that he could create engaging characters and bracing, tough-minded comedy with "Say Anything," "Jerry Maguire" and "Almost Famous." He hasn't made a satisfying feature in a decade, and his latest, co-written with Aline Brosh McKenna (of the dire "27 Dresses") is the death rattle of a once promising talent. This family comedy-drama is pure canned sentiment sold at a volume discount, two hours of cute kid close-ups and NatGeo animal portraiture in a montage of "awwww" moments.
In need of a fresh start, recent widower Benjamin (Matt Damon) relocates his young daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and 14-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford) to a fixer-upper zoo where high jinks ensue, supposedly.
The familiar template for Crowe movies asserts itself as our morose hero quits his office job as an L.A. newspaper reporter and finds a fresh lease on life in unexpected circumstances. He gets needed distractions in ailing animals, endless expenses and a supercilious zoo inspector (John Michael Higgins), but the adventure soon becomes an albatross.
After a middle section of self-doubt, Ben finds salvation with an eccentric young woman who apparently had been lying in wait just for him. Scarlett Johansson de-glams herself as tomboy zookeeper Kelly, who announces to Ben that if she wanted to be kissed by him, he wouldn't have any say in the matter. That unlikely exchange is a long step down for the man who gave us "You had me at hello."
The suspense surrounding the stars' relationship is not exactly nerve-shredding, nor is there much doubt that the dilapidated zoo will be ready for its big reopening. Though the springboard of the story is the death of Ben's wife, Katharine, the tone is relentlessly light and optimistic. In an effort to keep the film kid-friendly, "Zoo" denies its characters serious emotional hardships. Carefree Rosie seems hardly touched by losing her mother. Dylan has a mild case of the sitcom teenage grumps. Ben struggles halfheartedly with his grief throughout.
Nobody achieves a significant catharsis. Damon delivers a game performance, and Johansson fulfills her function, smiling encouragingly at him. In supporting roles, Elle Fanning and Thomas Haden Church do their best with material beneath them.
"Zoo's" wobbly grasp of human nature is underscored in a key scene that deserves a SPOILER ALERT. On the grand re-opening day, no one comes to the gate. The zoo crew investigate and find a that huge tree had fallen across the access road. Ben climbs the thick horizontal trunk and the camera rises with him, revealing a sea of people stretching to the horizon. Really? No one called the zoo to alert them to the downed tree? The thousand customers simply stood there like pod people, photogenically facing forward? They didn't just walk around the tree? For Crowe to get his shot, he needed movie extras, not human beings. With this easygoing but fundamentally false movie Crowe has gone from "Almost Famous" to nearly shameless.