Cameron Crowe seems to be a true one-off in modern-day American filmmaking: he continues to be able to make his small-scale, genre-defying, human-interest films within a major-studio system that is clearly less and less interested in such things, even though they don't make that much money and are usually hard-sells for the marketing departments. Mr. Crowe is also, surprisingly, as close as you can get (along with folks like Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, or Steven Soderbergh) to what passes for a French-style auteur in modern American cinema: exploiting a number of recurrent themes throughout his films, following almost always his lead characters' struggle to find their space and their way in contemporary society. We Bought a Zoo isn't an original script of his; rather an adaptation of journalist Benjamin Mee's memoir of plunging headfirst into the adventure of buying a small zoo and getting it back in shape, originally scripted by The Devil Wears Prada's Aline Brosh McKenna, then tweaked by Mr. Crowe himself to the point where it becomes a twin to his earlier, ill-received Elizabethtown.

     As in that fiercely underestimated movie, the death of a loved one serves as a catalyst to assess and change one's life (in a departure from the book, Mr. Mee's wife is already dead when the film starts, when in real life her disease was part of the reason for the life-change). And the fact that the film deals with the stresses and anxieties of mourning in a suddenly unbalanced family unit makes it an unlikely companion piece to Alexander Payne's underwhelming The Descendants, only in a softer, cuddlier, less cynical mood. Mr. Crowe has always had a tendency for the sentimental, and the presence of animals and kids sharing the limelight with Matt Damon (in fine form as Mr. Mee) and Scarlett Johansson (a surprisingly tough cookie as the zoo's animal warden, a character straight out of old-fashioned romantic comedies) will no doubt tick many viewers off.

     Yet it would be a mistake to discount We Bought a Zoo because of its self-evident family film trappings. The true heart of the movie lies in the need to start again that was already the trigger for Elizabethtown, only where that was a tale of atonement and redemption from failure, this one is its positive, following someone who needs to move forward and back into the community he has let himself stray away from. Community has always been a strong word in Mr. Crowe's films and especially in his more personal work - think Singles or Almost Famous - and he has always had a way with dialogue and character-building that is closer to the old-fashioned classics he tries to emulate; that is exactly what he does in We Bought a Zoo, admittedly in a minor key, as his film slowly shows itself to be a throwback to Golden-Age romantic comedies where characters and situations were always less self-evident and more complex than they seemed at first. The kids and the animals are an added bonus to the gentle beating heart of this sweet, fully-rounded comedy of finding what it is you want out of life.

Matt Damon; Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Patrick Fugit, Colin Ford, Elle Fanning, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, John Michael Higgins, Angus MacFadyen, Peter Riegert.
     Director, Cameron Crowe; screenplay, Aline Brosh McKenna, Mr. Crowe, from the book by Benjamin Mee, We Bought a Zoo; cinematography, Rodrigo Prieto (colour by DeLuxe); music, Jon Thor Birgisson; production designer, Clay Griffith; costume designer, Deborah L. Scott; editor, Mark Livolsi; producers, Julie Yorn, Mr. Crowe, Rick Yorn (Twentieth Century-Fox, LBI Entertainment, Vinyl Films in association with Dune Entertainment), USA, 2011, 123 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Amoreiras 1 (Lisbon), March 16th 2012.



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