“We Bought a Zoo’’ is a sweet-natured, terribly unthreatening drama about redemption and renewal, and it may matter more to the man who made it than the audiences who see it. Director Cameron Crowe has been in a career slump since 2001’s baroque “Vanilla Sky,’’ and he hasn’t made a movie since the tepid romantic comedy “Elizabethtown’’ in 2005. “Zoo’’ has the feeling of a man struggling to get back on a horse, and if the movie’s a far cry from Crowe’s best work – “Say Anything,’’ “Jerry Maguire,’’ “Almost Famous’’ – at least he’s on the horse. It’d be nice if the horse left the barn, but you can’t have everything.
Matt Damon, our most self-effacing movie star – quick, describe his persona: Talented everyman? Hard-working good guy? That’s not a persona, it’s an OK Cupid personal ad – plays journalist Benjamin Mee, on whose memoir the movie is very loosely based. His globe-trotting career brought to a halt by his wife’s death from cancer, Benjamin is a former high-flyer now grounded by grief and responsibility. His brother (Thomas Haden Church, bluffly amusing) urges him to get out, move on, go on a date. Instead, he buys a ratty wild animal park in the LA backcountry and moves in with his two children.
Crises abound. The zoo is close to receivership. The staff has dwindled to an overworked handful. One of the tigers is dying. And Benjamin’s teenage son, Dylan (Colin Ford), is in full 13-year-old revolt. If this sounds like “The Descendants’’ as remade by Animal Planet, you’re not wrong, and the comparison does no favors to Crowe. The director thankfully goes easy on the cute-animal shots, but only because Benjamin’s 7-year-old daughter is played by Maggie Elizabeth Jones, an actress so precociously adorable she can prompt thoughts of adoption in half the audience and thoughts of homicide in the other half.
The problem with “We Bought a Zoo’’ is that it talks about suffering without ever convincingly walking that walk. How hard can it be for Benjamin to reawaken to life when Scarlett Johansson is standing right there as head zookeeper Kelly, her hair gone ratty in a misfired attempt to look “plain’’? Dylan has his own dea machina in Lily (Elle Fanning), a local girl who throws herself at him with charming gaucheness. The only character who really seems up against it is that tiger, a magnificent specimen with clouded eyes and a bone-weary attitude. Maybe he’s wishing he could have been in “Jerry Maguire’’ instead.
Here’s the thing, though: “We Bought a Zoo’’ still won me over, and it may do the same for you. Crowe’s greatest gift as a filmmaker – it’s practically unique nowadays – is that he likes people. This is also his biggest liability. The upside is that there are no villains in his movies (except for Cameron Diaz in “Vanilla Sky’’ – maybe that’s what stripped the director’s gears). The closest the new film comes to a bad guy is a zoo inspector played by John Michael Higgins, which is a little like casting Mr. Whipple as Darth Vader. Like an American Jean Renoir, Crowe gives everybody his or her reasons, and you’re grateful for the charity.
The downside is that when the writing is slack – as it is in “We Bought a Zoo’’ – and the outcome preordained, there’s little to hold the interest. Kindness by itself isn’t enough to sustain a movie, so you grab the spiky bits: Angus Macfadyen’s comically splenetic assistant animal handler, Patrick Fugit (the kid from “Almost Famous’’) as a capably chill staff member, the heat in Johansson’s eyes when she looks at Damon’s Benjamin. The character roles are the strongest part of “Zoo’’; they bristle with a messy congeniality and the pleasures of working toward a common goal. It’s as though Crowe were finding his way back to engagement from the outside fringes in. All he has to do now is fill the hole in the middle.